The opera Telemaco, with a libretto by Marco Coltellini and music by Christoph Gluck, occupies a unique position as an opera seria that negotiates both tradition and reform. Scholars have long criticized the opera because of its ill-shaped libretto and uneven musical setting. This article contributes to the ongoing debate about operatic reform by reevaluating Telemaco based on its literary sources—Homer’s Odyssey and Fénelon’s novel Télémaque (1699).
The absorption of Homer and Fénelon into the fabric of Telemaco goes well beyond adaptation, touching both its general dramaturgy and the specific creation of its characters. Set on the island of Circe, Coltellini's libretto echoes the timeless, liminal status of the corresponding islands (Circe’s and Calypso’s) found in Homer and Fénelon. The characters reflect and blend features of their literary counterparts. They fall into two groups: those who fight their captive condition through impetuous behavior (Circe and Telemachus) and those who attempt to circumvent their predicament by clinging to a golden past (Asteria) or yearning for a hopeful future (Ulysses’s desire to return home). Gluck’s expression of the characters’ longing and identity, achieved through a manipulation of form and textual re-composition, thus implies multiple temporal directions, suggesting a series of synchronic, revolving points of view that challenge the diachronic unfolding of events typically associated with opera reform in the eighteenth century. This method of analysis therefore offers insight into the creative process and helps refine our understanding of reformist opera, both in Gluck’s output and broader eighteenth-century operatic practice.