Gluck's 'Alceste': Creating Something 'Cool' in Opera

WOO-1529-250-same            What did 18th-century opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck and 20th-century jazz great Miles Davis have in common?  Quite a bit, as it turns out, including a genuine disregard for the status quo.

            In 1957, Davis released his album, Birth of the Cool.  It was the result of his first important recording sessions as a band leader -- a period beginning in the late '40s, when he and his colleagues were experimenting with something new.

            At the time, jazz was dominated by the up-tempo, sometimes frenetic style called bebop, with its long, intricate solos showcasing the prodigious technique and improvisational skills of musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

            Davis had made a name for himself with bebop, but with the new album, things changed.  None of its tunes are much more than three minutes long -- shorter than many bebop solos.  Its style was less agitated, more relaxed.  It truly was "cool," and that became the name of the new school of jazz the album inspired.  It was one of those rare moments when the very nature of music seemed to change, almost overnight.

            Back in the 1760s and '70s opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck did something similar.  For decades, opera had been dominated by the form known as opera seria, which -- sort of like bebop -- had become a virtuoso showcase for flashy soloists:  the world's great singers and their amazing, and sometimes improvised, vocal gymnastics.

            Gluck reacted to this by going back to basics. Calling opera seria "ridiculous and tedious," he wrote dramas emphasizing simpler, more straightforward musical forms. He replaced long, technically cumbersome arias with shorter and more direct solo numbers, interwoven with highly-expressive declamatory singing, plus simple ensembles and choruses that played a true part in the story's action.

            All of this was an attempt to make sure the music in his operas was devoted to conveying the opera's story, and its raw emotions -- not just to showing off the singers.  Gluck's efforts are now known as reform operas.  And while they may not have spawned any blockbusters, they influenced composers for generations to come.

            Gluck's opera career was nothing if not versatile. Born in Bohemia, in1714, Gluck played a major role in bringing Italian opera to German-speaking audiences in Vienna, in the 1750s.  Later, in the 1770s, he took his message of operatic reform to France, bringing his Italian operas along with him.

            As a result, his opera Alceste exists in two versions.  It was premiered in Vienna in 1767, in ItalianLater, in 1776, Gluck made a somewhat different version of the opera in French.  Both scores display Gluck's trendsetting new style, but the French version was more audacious, and it’s the one that's most familiar today. Yet the Italian score was Gluck's original, and that's the version featured here, from Venice.          

            On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Alceste, in a production from historic La Fenice.  Guillaume Tourniaire conducts, with soprano Carmela Remigio in the title role and tenor Marlin Miller as Admeto.