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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHWEITZER: Alceste
Anton SCHWEITZER (1735-1787) • Christoph Martin WIELAND
Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813)
Wieland, the author of Alceste, is counted among the most
productive and successful writers of the eighteenth century and is one of the
most versatile in the history of German literature. He won enduring respect as
a poet, novelist, translator, publisher, editor and journalist. He was born on
5th September 1733, in the Upper Swabian village of Oberholzheim near Biberach
an der Riss, the son of a Protestant pastor influenced by Pietism, and in 1736
was taken with his family to Biberach. After schooling at Kloster Berg near
Magdeburg and subsequent periods of study in Erfurt and Tübingen, from October
1752 to May 1760 he lived in Switzerland. In the latter year he returned to
Biberach, becoming a senator and acting town clerk. Here he made the first
important German translation of Shakespeare, and wrote the Geschichte des
Agathon (The History of Agathon), the first German Bildungsroman, the beginning
of the modern psychological novel in Germany. In 1765 he married the daughter
of an Augsburg merchant, Anna Dorothea von Hillenbrand, who bore him fourteen
children. At the beginning of 1769 Wieland was elected to the position of
Professor of Philosophy at Erfurt University. Meanwhile he had become one of
the most widely read and respected German writers. In 1772 he received an
honorarium of 633 thaler for his novel Der goldene Spiegel (The Golden Mirror),
while Goethe, four years later, for his tragedy Stella received a mere twenty.
In 1772 Wieland was invited to Weimar as tutor to the sons of the dowager
Duchess Anna Amalia von Sachsen-Weimar. Here from 1773 he published his Der
teutsche Merkur (The German Mercury), the most important literary periodical of
the time. Wieland was the first poet whose works already in his lifetime
appeared in a lavish complete edition, and at the same time actually in four
different formats. In addition to his own comprehensive literary work, he also
translated ancient writers such as Horace, Lucian, Aristophanes, Euripides and
Cicero. From 1797 to 1803 he lived as a ‘poetic squire’ in Ossmannstedt, where
he had acquired property for his family. It was there that his later novels
Agathodamon and Aristipp were written. The last years of his life Wieland spent
again in Weimar, where he died on 20th January 1813. He was buried in
Ossmannstedt Park by the side of his wife and of Sophie Brentano, a
grand-daughter of his cousin and former betrothed, Sophie von La Roche.
Dr Egon Freitag
Goethe National Museum/Weimar Classical Foundation
The Alceste of Schweitzer and Wieland
‘Then there appeared two absurd, affected, gaunt, pale
puppets, who called each other Alcestis and Admetus, one wanting to die before
the other, and made a sound with their voices like birds and finally
disappeared with a sad squawking. They look absolutely alike, an
indistinguishable mish-mash. There is a wife who wants to die for her husband,
a husband who wants to die for his wife, a hero who wants to die for them both,
so that nothing is left but the boring figure Parthenia …
… all, if one examines it closely, is nothing but the
ability to put together theatre customs and conventions and gradually patched
together principles of nature and truth. Your Alcestis may be good and your
little wife and husband entertain, and also be tickled by so-called emotion. I
left it as one would move away from an out of tune zither.’
This was Goethe’s comment in his 1773 satire Götter, Helden
und Wieland (Gods, Heroes and Wieland) on Wieland’s ambitious attempt to bring
to the stage in Weimar a German Singspiel equal to Italian opera, an
undertaking in which he won great success. Goethe’s comments, however, came
before the period of his acquaintance and friendship with Wieland and
subsequently Goethe tried to distance himself from his satire, when he first
fell under the spell of Wieland. The tutor of the young princes had a dominant
charisma, his culture was overwhelming, and Goethe in his eulogy on Wieland in
1813 admitted that he was one of the greatest men of his time.
It was an exciting moment when, on 28th May, 1773, the
Singspiel Alceste, written for the Weimar court and for a small court theatre,
was performed there by Abel Seyler’s troupe, for which the composer Anton
Schweitzer (1735-1787) had served as music director since 1769. The piece was a
striking success and was played 25 times in Weimar, and then again in Dresden,
Leipzig, Schwetzingen, Mannheim, Frankfurt, Cologne, Danzig, Munich, Berlin,
Hamburg, Prague, Kassel, and elsewhere. The success of Alceste inspired Wieland
to write further Singspiel verse-plays, for example Rosamunde for Mannheim,
also set by Schweitzer. Alceste was a milestone in the development of a German
opera. It opened up a flood of similar works, not least Goethe’s satire.
Clearly this Alceste must be seen in its historical perspective.
Christoph Martin Wieland had been tutor to the princes at
the Weimar court since 1772, and in that year had written his exemplary
Bildungsroman Der goldene Spiegel (The Golden Mirror). Before that he had
taught philosophy at Erfurt University. It was here that he came to know the
Seyler troupe and their composer and music director Anton Schweitzer, who had
been a chorister as a boy in Hildburghausen, then a viola-player and cellist in
the musical establishment of Duke Ernst Friedrich Carl. He completed his
studies in Bayreuth and in Italy and finally, when the ducal musical
establishment was dissolved, served as music director at Hildburghausen.
Schweitzer won great respect as a composer with the Abel Seyler troupe, a
company to which the distinguished actor Konrad Ekhof belonged. After the
engagement in Weimar the troupe moved in 1774 to Gotha, and we find it active
again with Wieland in Mannheim. Through his association with the troupe
Schweitzer played a not unimportant part in the development of German opera.
The background to the rôle of Weimar in the creation of
German opera lay in the so-called court of the Muses of the Duchess Anna
Amalia, who, widowed young, wanted to make her residence a centre of musical,
literary, philosophical and general cultural activity. Those active in Weimar
include, among many others, Herder, Goethe in different civic and political
cultural rôles (from 1776 he was director of the theatre), Wieland as tutor and
literary figure, Bertuch, Kotzebue, Musaeus, Gotter, Einsiedel and Schiller.
Certainly this had stimulated Wieland in 1772 to bring about
what Anna Amalia had in mind, that is to establish a national theatre (spoken
and opera) as a model. There were forerunners, but they had not enjoyed any lasting
success. Not so, however, the successful Singspiel of the type of Hiller’s Die
Jagd (The Hunt) or Schweitzer’s Dorfgala (Village Gala) of 1772, which
nevertheless were in folk-style and lacked the character of patterns for future
development. The idea of a national theatre in Weimar had its roots in the
conception of Musaeus and the Hamburg dramatist Lessing and involved the
establishment of a regular theatre of quality, proclaiming good customs and
The opera Alceste was not the first example of collaboration
between the poet and composer. It had been preceded by the ballet Idris und
Zenide and Aurora. On the occasion of Aurora flattering comparison was made of
Wieland with the stage poet Metastasio. Wieland’s Alceste brought various written
comments by the author, in view of the high aims associated with it. At the
very beginning of his writing Versuch über das Deutsche Singspiel (Essay on the
German Singspiel) Wieland explains his intention: ‘Charles Burney, whose
musical tour through France, Italy and Germany once caused such a sensation, is
rightly surprised that, in all the German lands through which he passed, he
nowhere found any German lyric theatre’.
Wieland held the idea that the absence of a lyric theatre
could in no way be attributable to the German language. It must be of equal
value to the dominant Italian and French opera. Wieland based himself in his
reflections partly on Algarotti’s Saggio sopra l’opera in musica (Essay on the
Opera in Music) of 1753 and on Lessing’s work in Hamburg, as well as on
Metastasio’s conception, but all at a critical distance. The aim was to be an
‘interesting kind of theatrical performance’ with the main emphasis on feeling.
How far Wieland stood at the height of the newest developments in the field of
music drama can be seen from some unusual, highly topical scenes: effectively
at the beginning of the oath to the gods of Alcestis’s heart-stirring aria,
which is in the tradition of the ‘ombra scene’ (Ihr Götter der Hölle/You gods
In his composition Schweitzer chooses for this aria certain
salient characteristics, first the dark key of G minor in which the aria is
set. Declamatory gestures swing between desperatio and furore types of aria,
with the broken chords of the beginning, wide melodic steps, intervals of a
seventh, second and tritone, and chromatic contours; interspersed recitative
breaks away from the familiar da capo form. Schweitzer’s setting clearly met
the ideas of Wieland, who valued him very highly, comparing him with Pergolesi,
Galuppi and Sacchini. In the second act Wieland enhances his learned impetus
through the death scene of Alcestis, that seems to have a very modern realism
on the opera stage (it starts with the aria Weine nicht, du meines Herzens
Abgott! (Weep not, idol of my heart) and ends with the death of Alcestis). The
model for this scene is Klopstock’s Der Tod Adams (Adam’s Death), that was
presented in Italian by Gasparo Gozzi and in Italian-Venetian circles, with a
death scene of this kind, and was first heard as a dramatic oratorio at the
Ospedale degli Incurabili. There were exceptionally close connections between
the court of the Muses and Venice. The dying woman is accurately brought to the
last moments of her life, the particular signs of her dying shown in the versi
spezzati, the broken verses, that were then untypical in German libretti. The
detailed symptoms of approaching death bring together knowledge of newly
discovered psychological observation with the representation of feeling, of the
feeling man and the sentimental. This is also shown in the music.
The E flat major aria itself is characterized as a
desperatio aria, with sighing motifs following the text. The declamation is not
flowing but is broken by breathless repetitions of the plea Weine nicht (Weep
not), repeated in an echo by the flutes. The declamation is generally syllabic,
only rarely melismatic. With great sensibility Schweitzer illuminates passages
of the text in respective new variations and deepens the precise meaning of the
text with varied accentuation, ensuring an increase in the intensity of the
emotional element, as for example through the chromatic passing notes for the
first verse in the second line or through the lengthening of the same passages
of the text in the third line, together with a pedal point tremolo, or in
combination with the accentuation of the word Abgott through a bold leap from B
flat to upper D. A sensitive musical language with chromatic steps conveys the
mood, the lyrical elements of which are stressed only through the flutes. The
moment of death itself calls for particular attention; it is as an arioso scena
and in free form - Alcestis dies in F minor, followed by C minor and combined
with a remarkable gesture, the abrupt change to C major. From here on the harmony
moves by means of a rising chromatic fourth in the bass, from E to A, to a
seventh chord on B, with the conclusion (presumably) in E major, a notably
inconsistent ending that surprises and provokes thought, since a quite
different conclusion was expected.
Spectacular is the fourth act, which begins with two great
monologues by Parthenia and by Admetus. The subject of the second monologue is
the desolation of Admetus, his powerlessness at the loss of Alcestis. Musically
the monologue is divided into several passages. At the end is the textually
concise aria of two three-line stanzas, not set as a da capo aria. It is an
example of a special kind of emotion and of the sentimental.
Schweitzer has the monologue start with a lyrical inventio,
memories of youth. It is a pleasant pastoral opening and we become aware of an
important aim in Schweitzer’s musical language, namely the deeper understanding
of the text; in Wieland’s words ‘As a painter and poet with what fire he
expresses their sorrows, with what truth, freedom and tenderness their
emotions’. The state of mind of Admetus is reflected in the enharmonic change
of E flat to D sharp and a change of chord from the first inversion of E flat
to the first inversion of B major. The choice of key is surprising and
unexpected, while the words ‘Wo bist du’ (Where are you) suggest a reference to
Gluck’s Orfeo, although Admetus will not try to bring Alcestis back from the
dead, but rather to stay with her.
After that comes the vision of Admetus, ‘Ach! ich seh’ sie geh’n’
(Ah! I see you going). This brings a breathless short motif, an eloquent
harmonic progression. The crossing of Alcestis over the Styx is presented as a
short independent passage, with the bassoon and bass instruments suggesting the
movement of the waves. The text deals with the desire of Admetus for the
beloved and his fear that she may forget him, if she drinks the waters of
This introduction leads to the aria, dominated again by
darker colours with the oboes important. The hopelessness of the situation is
shown through tremoli and chromatic progressions in the bass. The second part
of the aria is, in contrast, higher in register, with the flutes replacing the
oboes, at first without the bass, and in the key of G minor. Here Admetus seems
to envisage some tie with the dead, as he lives in the heart of Alcestis, if
that were possible.
The central moment is the return of Alcestis, a difficult
task for the composer. In Wieland’s words ‘Then there is a place where Alcestis
comes back from Elysium and speaks the words; “Still there breathes to me from
the eternally blooming fields the spirit of immortality”. Here there must be a
great transition, which was impossible for him to hit on. I encouraged him,
advised him first to put the aria to one side …Eight days later he came back
with sunshine in his eyes. “I believe I have found it”. Really it is one of the
most sublime of passages. The change from B flat major to B major is surprising
and with the full orchestra shattering.’
The composer was successful here. The return of the
ritornello takes its starting-point from G minor and E flat major and finally
forms the basis for a transition into the harmonic field of the Underworld,
namely the sounds of A flat major and D flat major. There is a sudden return to
B, the dominant of E major, recalling the monologue of Admetus, and, further,
the sudden moment of the death of Alcestis, as her dying musically evokes a
kind of enlightenment, in the nineteenth-century sense, an unusual leap to B,
but as the dominant of E major.
Consequently there is also an association with A flat major,
the basis of the vision of Admetus, when he imagines the Underworld. It was a
vision that brought him a living bond with the memory of his wife, which had
clearly not gone, and formed the harmonic basis for the return of Alcestis. The
death of Alcestis and her return are thus musically raised to the same level,
coupled with unreality. This provided a successful and subtle solution to a
With their Alceste Schweitzer and Wieland changed the
standard for every Singspiel composition, as they had hitherto been heard at
the Weimar court. They found a conception for a German opera, still called
German Singspiel, in which subject and presentation were nevertheless changed,
continuing not in Weimar but in other places, as, for example, in Mannheim.
Prof. Dr. Helen Geyer
An opera involves both music and text. A separate
consideration of one or the other often leads either listener or reader to a
false conclusion. That was the case with Goethe, who at best knew the text of
Alceste, but did not have a chance to enjoy the work as a whole. For those who
may not understand every sung word, the following is a short outline of the
plot and its background. In Wieland’s time ancient myths and stories were a
matter of general knowledge; everyone had at least some time heard of the
heroic deeds of Hercules.
The plot is set in the palace of King Admetus of Pherae in
Thessaly. He had once served in the crew of Jason’s ship, the Argo, and also
taken part in the hunting of the Calydonian boar. Admetus is noble, favoured by
the Gods. Apollo had killed the Cyclopes and had to expiate his crime by
serving for a certain time as serf to a mortal. He chose to serve Admetus and
guarded his herds. Since then Admetus has been the God’s special favourite.
Apollo could not give him immortality, but persuaded the Parcae that the thread
of his life should not be cut, if, when he was dying, someone could be found to
go down to Hades in his place.
At the beginning of the opera the life of Admetus is near an
end; from day to day he becomes weaker. His wife, Alcestis, was the fairest
daughter of King Pelias. Admetus was only able to win her hand when Apollo
helped him by fulfilling the condition laid down by her father, to harness a
lion and a bear to a chariot. The couple have now lived happily for many years,
having children and loved by their people. Alcestis, in her anxiety, has sent
messengers to the Delphic oracle to find out whether it might be possible to
save her husband. The messengers have now returned with the answer, but
Alcestis is afraid to hear it. Parthenia, her sister, finally brings her the
word of the oracle: Admetus must die, unless he finds someone to take his
place. Parthenia has sought in vain; not even his father, an old man and more
dead than alive, will take his son’s place. Alcestis decides to sacrifice
herself, as a way out. Parthenia begs her to take back her promise and to think
of her children, her friends, and, not least, the kingdom. Alcestis, however,
will not change her mind.
has miraculously recovered his strength, seeks out Alcestis to share with her
his happiness. Parthenia leads him to the dying woman and reveals to him the
terrible price to be paid for his newly regained life. Both of them try to
dissuade Alcestis. Admetus tells her that he cannot live without her and that
her sacrifice would be in vain. Furthermore he would be accused of cowardice
and despised. Alcestis stands by her oath: the life of Admetus belongs not to
him or to her, but to his people. Finally she has her children brought to her
and bids Admetus think of his duty. While she is dying, Admetus is in despair
and Parthenia complains to the cruel Gods who seem to know no mercy.
In the third act a new hero comes on the scene; it is
Hercules, who has no task to fulfil but comes to the court of Admetus to seek
out his old friend, once his companion on the Argo. The court is in deep
mourning and Hercules is afraid that his old friend has died. Parthenia tells
him of the death of Alcestis and the circumstances. For Hercules it is of great
importance that Admetus has not bargained for his own life and lost his virtue,
since he knew nothing of Alcestis’s decision. For him what Alcestis has done is
a uniquely heroic deed, not to remain unrewarded. He determines to bring
Alcestis back from Hades and promises to help his friend. The latter, however,
sits in despair by the urn that holds the ashes of Alcestis and feels that he
has been abandoned by the Gods; he is not consoled by the promise of Hercules,
since a demi-god can have no power against the Gods.
Parthenia tries to do all she can, after the departure of
Hercules, to bring Admetus back to life. She shares his mourning, but insists
that Alcestis should not have died in vain; life must go on. She reminds him of
his friend’s promise; however hopeless it seems, he must not lose heart.
The fifth act starts with a funeral offering for Alcestis.
Hercules, returning, interrupts the ceremony with the declaration that he has
kept his word. Parthenia perceives that he is telling the truth, but Admetus
feels that this is a mockery in his sorrow and doubts the veracity of his
friend, who brings with him a substitute for her, but none who could take the
place of his Alcestis. The feelings of Admetus are such that he thinks that
Hercules is playing a cruel joke on him and would put an end to their
friendship. Parthenia reproaches Hercules, but learns that the hero has really
kept his word. While Alcestis is veiled, her happy sister brings her back
before Admetus. He accepts his friend’s apology and finally recognises in the
woman Hercules has brought back, his wife Alcestis, who must herself dispel his
last doubts. Both are united again in happiness.
Admetus is a hero in retirement; he has exchanged the life
of adventure for domestic happiness. The sacrifice of Alcestis casts him back
into his former circumstances, but he can no longer fight, since that for which
he once fought is no more. The Gods have left him no choice. Alcestis has acted
independently and presented him with a fait accompli. Admetus, from being a
hero in retirement has become a victim of circumstances. The gift of Apollo has
finally become a gift of the Greeks.
Parthenia is a heroine of reason. Basically she embodies all
that had distinguished Alcestis before she made her decision to follow her
heart. Parthenia is also the bad conscience of Admetus, neglecting his duty.
She tries to make the best of every situation; even though she well knows that she
has no chance against the will of the Gods, she does not give up hope. She
inveighs not only against the cruelty of the Gods, but always tries to soften
this cruelty. Parthenia has the hardest lot of all the characters: she is the
real victim. She knows the dilemma of the Gods and without her Alcestis’s
sacrifice would not have been possible; if she had told Admetus, he would have
found a way to save his wife’s life. Yet while Parthenia knows that the one who
survives the loss of a partner must waste away, for love of her sister she lets
her carry out her deed. In this way for love she acts against her own heart.
Alcestis is dead, but Parthenia must live with the consequences.
Hercules is of the race of professional heroes, a man of few
words, who rather lets his actions speak for him. Persecuted by the vengeance
of Hera, even in the cradle he had to protect himself. His first labour, the
strangling of the serpent, was in self-defence; and most of his heroic deeds he
undertook not of his own accord, but because his father, outwitted by Hera, had
sworn a fatal oath. The returning of Alcestis from the Underworld is probably
his greatest deed. He takes on all dangers out of pure friendship; he cannot
see his friend suffering and stakes his own life. Admetus has had no horse
trading with the Gods; he is not responsible for his own unhappiness, the
justification for the help Hercules gives him. After the happy reunion of the
loving couple, Admetus asks Hercules about the circumstances so that he may
truly appreciate the heroic deed, but Hercules does not answer, seeing it as a
pure act of friendship, and acts of friendship are a matter of course not for
self-congratulation. The greatest hero of the ancient world belittles himself;
he has not behaved as a hero but as a normal human being.
Alcestis is the heroine of love. After the word of the
oracle she has no other choice than to act according to her heart. She respects
Admetus as a man of nobility, while loving him. Furthermore he has duties as
king and father, for which there is no substitute. Since she knows that Admetus
will never approve of her action, she does not tell him. She loves him and
cannot think of him dead. Before she knows the word of the oracle, she prayed
the Gods to let them both die together, if the death of Admetus was inevitable;
she knows the story of Philemon and Baucis. After hearing the oracle the blow
makes her follow her heart not her understanding; she no longer considers the
consequences of her action, only thinking of the life of Admetus, who once too
had risked his life for her. Alcestis does not die heroically, but grieves at
death; she is completely human, but her decision to sacrifice herself is
heroic, even if she herself does not see it. Without hesitating a second, she
leapt in to help him, as one might plunge into the water to rescue a drowning
child, obeying her heart. Hercules sees Alcestis as a heroine, a further reason
for his own act of friendship; such a deed must be rewarded. He knows that
through the milk of Hera he is immortal; it is impossible for him to be
humiliated by a mortal woman, whose risk is far greater than his own. Yet, as
always, both actions are underlaid by the rules of the heart, love and
In Idris und Zenine one can read what high value Wieland put
on acts dictated by the heart: ‘What one feels very seldom or never deceives
us; error lies only in overhasty conclusions’.
English versions by Keith Anderson
is alone in her ante-chamber. In a recitative she awaits the messenger from the
Delphic oracle, on whose lips hangs the fate of Admetus and of his wife. She
prays to the Gods to save him. Her aria finds her divided in her mind between
anxiety and hope, carried by the waters between rocks; there is thunder and
roaring wind, the waves rise, and about her is night and horror. This heart is
all that is left to her.
is joined by her sister Parthenia and asks her whether the message is one of
life or death. Parthenia tells her that the terrible daughters of Erebus are
implacable and Atropos will soon sever the thread of his life. Alcestis sinks
down, calling on the Gods, but Parthenia tells her that Apollo gives a glimmer
of hope, since Admetus is still alive and will live if someone takes his place
in death. Alcestis asks if this is true and Parthenia assures her that it is.
Alcestis asks if Parthenia knows anyone who will die for Admetus. The latter
tells her that none, not even the father of Admetus, will do this. Alcestis is
certain of the sacrifice to be made.
an aria she offers herself to the Gods of the Underworld, hearing already their
dark wings as they come to take her.
tries to dissuade her sister, reminding her of their childhood together and
their love, leaving friends, country and children, and exchanging the light of
the sun for the night of Tartarus. Alcestis tells her that her pleas are in
vain and that she should now leave her dear sister, her husband and her
children. The Parcae call her and they must part. Parthenia is more urgent in
her pleas, but Alcestis will not go back on her oath, as death already has his
hand on her. Parthenia touches her sister, who is dying, glad to die for her
husband. Parthenia calls on the Gods of Olympus for help. Left alone, Alcestis
is dying, calling, in an aria, on her sister and husband who have left her to
is alone in his wife’s ante-chamber, looking for her to tell her his good news,
brought back by a miracle from the banks of the Styx. In an aria he wonders who
to thank for this new life, for which he praises the Gods.
is joined by Parthenia, who can find no words to tell Admetus what has
happened. She struggles, but can only speak the name of Alcestis.
inner room is revealed, with Alcestis seemingly sleeping in a chair, while an
attendant kneels by her, and two others stand near, waiting for her to awake.
Admetus calls to her, and Parthenia tells him that she is dead, while he lives.
Admetus can find no words to express his horror, kneeling at her feet and
calling on her, the most loyal, best, most beloved of wives. Alcestis wakes and
looks lovingly at her husband, stretching out her hand to him, and thanking the
Gods that he is alive. He tells her that life is nothing to him without her.
would give a thousand lives, if she had them, for Admetus, who wonders at her
great love, while Parthenia remarks on her sister’s loyalty.
call on the Gods to hear his wife and spare her. Alcestis, however, can think
of no better fate than to die for her beloved husband, in whom she will live
on. He cannot live without her and must be united with her in the land of the
shades. Alcestis tells Parthenia to fetch her children.
with his wife Admetus tells her that he could not endure the shame of letting
her die for him, the taunts of cowardice. She reminds him that his life is not
his own nor his wife’s, but belongs to his people. For him, however, she is the
whole world; without her there is no people, no country, no life.
returns with the children and Alcestis asks him if there are no children for
him. She calls them to her and embraces them, asking her husband if he can
forget that he is a father. He asks who can hear her, see her, see her die and
want to survive. She begs him not to waste the time left to them, and he is
overcome by tears, as she expresses her resolve to die.
an aria Alcestis begs him not to cry, for she is glad to give her life for him.
She grows weaker, fainting, to the distress of her attendants. Admetus is
prostrate at her feet, stretching his hands up to heaven in supplication.
Parthenia leads the children away, returning to find her sister about to die.
With her last breath Alcestis calls on her country, her sister and her husband,
bidding farewell. Admetus sinks down to the ground in sorrow. Some servants
carry him away, while her attendants cover the Queen’s face with a white cloth.
in an aria sings of her sister’s death out of duty, calling on the Gods, who,
in their cruelty, can see their tears and the sorrow that her sacrifice has
scene is in a forecourt. There is a laurel grove and part of the palace can be
seen in the distance, with Doric columns. As the sun sinks Hercules approaches,
happy to see the friendly palace of Admetus, where he can rest from his labours.
It is for virtue that he has done everything, after which he seeks respite.
looks round with surprise, so quiet is everything, no singing in the colonnade,
but the palace of Admetus is deserted, like the ruins of a city destroyed. He
seems to hear the sound of lamenting. A servant comes out and seeing Hercules
hurries back, with a gesture of consternation. Hercules is eager to know what
is happening, since friendship has brought him there.
comes out and greets him. He asks her what is happening, and she tells him that
Admetus lives, his life saved by a miracle, but that Alcestis is dead, having
given her life for her husband. Hercules is amazed that Apollo has allowed such
a thing. She tells him of the words of the oracle, how one must die, but
Hercules will not allow such virtue to be held in an urn of ashes and demands
to see Admetus.
tells him that Admetus shuns the light of day in his inconsolable grief.
resolves to rescue Alcestis.
is seen, sitting, his arm resting on a small table, upon which stands an urn.
Hercules slowly approaches in sympathy and friendship, promising to help him or
lose his own life in doing so; he urges Admetus to hope, but the latter cannot,
since his wife’s ashes are before him, and she is dead, cold, and lifeless.
tries to encourage Admetus, for soon his fate will be reversed.
is alone in the forecourt, grieving, blending her tears with those of Admetus.
something remains if there is a friend to share this sorrow.
scene changes to the chamber of Admetus, who recalls the happiness of youth and
love and calls on Alcestis, now wandering on the banks of Lethe, seeming to see
her cross the river. He will follow her and bids her not to forget him. In his
grief he still lives in her heart; this is all he has.
enters, bearing a golden beaker, which she gives him, telling him it will still
his sorrows and bring forgetfulness. Admetus refuses the draught, unwilling to
forget Alcestis, thinking only of her, waking or dreaming, ready to find a
dwelling on her tomb, where myrtles will grow from his tears.
urges him to leave off from his grieving, but Admetus wants only his sorrow.
Parthenia tells him that if he dies, then the sacrifice of Alcestis has been in
vain. In the following recitative he tells her to let him grieve, but she asks
if he has forgotten the words of Hercules. Admetus answers that even Apollo,
mightier than Hercules, could not help him. He tells her not to encourage him
with idle hopes. Soon midnight will be there, the time for sacrifice.
scene is a temple in the palace, where offering is to be made for the dead.
Admetus, Parthenia and members of the household kneel before the altar. They
call on the Gods of the Underworld, on Hecate and the Eumenides, to accept
their offering. Admetus, in a recitative, calls to Alcestis, among the blessed
souls, to remember those she has left, their tears and mourning.
sees Hercules returning in joy, bringing in her place the loveliest daughter of
the Graces, to the ill-concealed anger of Admetus. Hercules would have the
cypresses changed to roses and the temple of death to the shrine of love.
an aria Admetus asks how he could ever be untrue to Alcestis, or the earth
would open up before him and the torch of the Emenides shine into his face.
with Hercules, Parthenia tells him he has gone too far, treating his friend so
cruelly. Hercules, however, has come back to make Admetus happy, as she will
alone, is puzzled by what Hercules has told her.
returns, leading Alcestis, to the amazement of Parthenia, who would embrace
her, but draws back, trembling, when she comes near her. Hercules tells her not
to be afraid; she is really Alcestis. Alcestis herself calls Parthenia to her
arms. Parthenia is amazed, but still doubts. Hercules assures her that the Gods
have given Alcestis back, and Alcestis joins in this. He tells Parthenia to
fetch Admetus, but without telling him what has happened.
bids Alcestis veil her face again. For Alcestis this all seems a dream, looking
at the dwelling that she had left for ever, the temple, all strange to her, as
she recalls the joys of Elysium. In an aria she remembers the fields of the
blessed and her happiness.
hears the approach of Admetus, and Alcestis steps into the background.
returns, followed by Admetus. Hercules promises to make him happy and tells him
to raise his eyes and what he sees amazes him. Alcestis approaches with open
arms, finally hurrying to him and embracing him. Admetus can hardly believe it,
but she assures him that she is really Alcestis, finding Elysium again in his
arms. She tells him that thanks is due to his friend who managed to take her
away from Proserpine. Admetus can only shed tears of joy in gratitude, and she
now lives again for him.
the finale Alcestis tells how she wandered with the blessed souls in Elysium, a
dream, now that she is his again, not regretting the songs of Amphion. Admetus
seeks to know whether the joys of Elysium equal theirs, but she has found
Elysium in their love. He thanks Hercules, rewarded by his own happiness at
theirs, and Parthenia offers thanks to the Gods, joined by the whole company.
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