For the wedding of Emperor Joseph II to Maria Josepha of Bavaria in 1765, Christoph Willibald Gluck provided three works: the azione teatrale Parnaso confuso, the ballet-mime Semiramide and the opera Telemaco. Only Parnaso confuso was well received; the other two works were greeted with consternation more than anything else, since their plots were not really suitable for a wedding celebration. Gluck had nevertheless taken the utmost care when composing Telemaco; it was only the ballet sequences customary at the time that he did not get around to writing – which was another cause of displeasure. Telemaco disappeared from the stage immediately.
Telemaco, searching for his father Ulisse who is believed missing, has landed on the island of the sorceress Circe. There, he falls in love with Asteria who was kidnapped as a child by Circe and does not know who her parents are. The sorceress holds a feast for the god Amor in honour of her guest. However, the festivities are ruined by an oracle which condemns all to suffering who are tyrannical in love. Circe feels that the warning is addressed to her, and she is not wrong to do so since she is keeping Ulisse prisoner out of love. Filled with dismay she releases him and his companions, whom she had turned into trees. At length, Telemaco finds his father. But Circe is already beginning to regret her magnanimity and tries unsuccessfully to prevent Ulisse from departing by means of magic spells and intrigues. Asteria flees with them to Ithaca: she is the daughter of the king of Crete and was chosen as Telemaco's bride while still a child. The lonely Circe devastates the island in her disappointment and flies off on the back of a dragon. Venus and Amor turn the island into a paradise of love.
Gluck combined elements of the French tragédie lyrique with those of the Italian style. In consequence, Telemaco is clearly classifiable as a reformed opera. In terms of the subject matter, it is Circe's magical capabilities that are inspired by French magic operas. Gluck used a wide variety of different forms of aria and gave the chorus a meaningful role in the plot. For the part of Circe he created emotional outbursts of impressive virtuosity. In 1987 the work was performed in Salzburg for the first time since its premiere, in concert form. The stage version was first performed again in 2003 at the English Bach Festival in London.