There can be little doubting the fact that the
story of Alceste or Alcestis, as found in Greek mythology, was
one of the most popular stories used in opera in the 17th
and 18th Centuries. In the present climate where obscure
and sometimes rather mediocre late baroque and classical operas
and Singspiels are being dug out it was inevitable that another
Alceste would emerge. This present work is a singspiel, a form
much in popularity in Germany, particularly Leipzig and Salzburg
in the 1770s and 1780s. It was much graced by Mozart with pieces
like ‘Il Seraglio’ but its popularity spread to Mannheim, Dresden,
Hamburg and even to Prague.
But what of Schweitzer and Wieland. They are
given equal weight in the CD booklet and essay so that at first
I thought, as I was ignorant of their existences, they were a
kind Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their biographies are given in the
aforementioned notes. It seems that in fact they hardly worked
together at all. So, with the exception of two smaller projects,
this work is pretty well a ‘one-off’. Wieland was much the more
famous. As he admired Schweitzer’s music so much and regarded
the rendition of his text as of paramount importance we must see
this work as an important phase in the development of German theatre
and opera. In any case, its immediate success and the fact that
it was performed all over Germany lead to a veritable land-slide
of artists willing to move on to the singspiel bandwagon. With
this as background Marco Polo have performed a great service in
giving us the opportunity to get to know this important piece.
But first the famous and heart-rending plot.
Alceste is married to Admetus who falls ill, near to death. The
opera opens at this point with a searching overture and moving
opening scene. Alcestis asks the Gods to spare him, but this is
agreed only on the grounds that someone else dies in his place.
No substitute can be found, not even his elderly parents, so Alceste
decides to offer herself despite the protestations of her sister
Parthenia. Hence the exacting and thrilling aria in Act 1 ‘Ihr
Götter de Holle (You gods of Hades). Alceste weakens so Admetus
is cured and returns from his bed to find his wife almost dead.
He learns of her sacrifice and immediately says that life without
her is no life at all. This leads to Alcestis’s death scene and
her moving aria ‘Weine nicht, du meines Herzens Abgott’ (Weep
not, idol of my heart). Admetus grieves, and a new character,
Hercules, descends and promises to bring back Alceste as her actions
and Admetus’ are honourable. Two glorious arias punctuate this
section: Parthenia’s ‘Er flucht dem Tagesleit’ in a gloriously
virtuoso style using the coloratura register and Hercules’ ‘Es
ist beschlossen’, his musical highpoint.
Needless to say all works out happily and the
music is at its most inspired in these final pages.
Of the two creators of this singspiel Wieland
was the most famous and probably the most important. Dr. Egon
Freitag in the notes tells us that he was "a novelist, translator,
publisher, editor and journalist" and produced "the
first important German translation of Shakespeare". Dr. Hele
Geyer in her essay on the singspiel itself tells us that Goethe
saw the piece and apparently left the performance "as one
would move away from an out of tune zither". Despite his
comments, its first performance on 28th May 1773 was
a success which "stimulated Wieland to establish a national
theatre (spoken and opera) as a model". She analyses the
music in some detail pointing out Schweitzer’s especially interesting
use of keys adding to the drama, and which helped to create what,
for the time, was " a very modern sense of realism",
with its "declamatory gestures and ‘furore’ types of aria".
In addition there is also a useful and detailed
essay by Reinhard Hasenfus on the full background and story of
Alceste as found in mythology. A synopsis of each scene is given
but the full text is available in German only. There are also
biographies of the performers.
Thinking of the performers and overall direction
of the work does however create a rather mixed reaction at least
from this writer. First the negatives.
Curiously the chorus have very little to do.
There is the temple scene in Act IV when they pray to the gods
for Alceste’s return and they briefly appear in the Finale. I
find them rather top heavy and recessed. The sopranos are too
full of vibrato. Alceste herself, Ursula Targler, seems mis-cast.
Surely she is really a mezzo in a soprano role. She seems to push
up at her high register to such an extent that it becomes quite
an irritant especially in the big florid arias. Christian Voigt
is too ponderous in the Bachian style seco-recitatives, and the
orchestra seems at times to be under-rehearsed.
Now some positives. Sylvia Koke is light and
airy as Parthenia but also full of pathos especially in the wonderful
moment in Act IV (Allmacht’ge Götter! Was seh ich?"
when Alceste returns to life and is reveal by Hercules. He is
ideally cast in the bass Christoph Johannes Wendel with just the
right amount of authority and weight.
The fact remains however that this two disc set
is probably only for those with a particular penchant for opera
of the classical period or in German theatre. Nevertheless it
is a fascinating document of a rather overlooked genre in a little
known category and at the very least gives us a clearer view of
where Mozart was coming from and how he added a greater dimension
to the genre.
Bill Kenny has also listened to this recording
Naxos/Marco Polo are to be congratulated on the
release of this important rarity. Sometimes acknowledged as the
one composer who forged the link between the Baroque and Classical
periods in German music, Anton Schweitzer is also often credited
(jointly with the poet/librettist Christoph Martin Wieland with
whom he collaborated on Alceste) with the definition of
truly ‘German’ opera: at least in the Singspiel form adopted
by Mozart in Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte
and later by Beethoven in Fidelio. This Schweitzer/Wieland
Alceste, first performed in 1772, was a huge success
in Weimar and beyond. It came to be much admired by Goethe who
nobly changed his mind about his first impressions of it once
he had met Wieland and grasped the true significance of the work.
This Alceste generated a whole new German national operatic
style, clearly different from the French and Italian styles that
The detailed booklet essays on Wieland are by
Dr. Egon Freitag of the Goethe National Museum and on the opera
and its joint authors by Professor Dr. Helen Geyer. They offer
a wealth of information on the significance of the work and the
artistic statures of the composer and librettist. Professor Geyer’s
essay also discusses in detail the harmonic and structural innovations
that Schweitzer uses in the music. A synopsis of the plot, a scene
by scene account of the action and the German libretto are also
The plot of the work is relatively simple: Alcestis,
wife of Admetus, a King of Thessaly who was formerly one of Jason’s
Argonauts, is allowed to replace her husband when he is about
to die. She makes this sacrifice willingly and though Admetus
lives on he is desolated by his loss. Since Admetus had no part
in influencing his wife’s decision and had valiantly attempted
to dissuade her from making it, the demi-god Hercules judges him
to have acted virtuously and returns Alcestis from Hades. This
version of the story (simpler than Lully’s 1674 version or Gluck’s
of 1767) requires only four principal characters and chorus.
The music is interesting rather than thrilling,
due in part to the limitations of the singers all of whom are
representative of a good provincial opera company rather than
a national one. There is a good deal of recitative, naturally
enough, but the work also has a number of appealing arias, pretty
duets and some agreeable chorus work.
In her essay, Professor Geyer rightly identifies
Alcestis’s aria "Ihr Götter der Hölle"
(CD1 track 4) for its dramatic significance and harmonic innovation.
However it is Parthenia, Alcestis’s sister, who has the highlight
of the whole piece in "O! der ist nicht vom Schicksal ganz
verlassen" (CD 2 track 7.) The orchestral sound is very good
and Stephan E. Wehr guides the work along with an assured hand.
It is clear that he cares deeply about this significant work and
that fact alone means that devotees of opera from this period
will not be disappointed by this landmark performance.