For all the hype generated by the three so-called Italian reform operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck—not least by the composer himself and his librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi—only the first, Orfeo ed Euridice, is encountered today with any frequency. The second, Alceste, has name recognition but turns up infrequently, and then typically in Gluck’s revised version for Paris. The third, Paride ed Elena (1770), won’t be familiar, even by name, to many operagoers, so Odyssey Opera offered a valuable opportunity to see it in a staged version at the Huntington Avenue Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 15 and 16.
Gluck and Calzabigi thought the elaborate music of opera seria needed a reform, a term that automatically conjures a sense of overbearing theoretical earnestness. Surprisingly, though, their opera dramatizing Paris’s amorous conquest of Helen of Troy is thoroughly delightful. (For those who couldn’t get to Boston, Paul McCreesh’s ArchivMusic recording with Magdalena Kozená is highly recommended.) Don’t be put off by the fact that the three principal roles were all written for sopranos (the first Paris was a castrato) or that there is little conventional action. Like Alceste, Paride ed Elena was published with a preface indicating Gluck’s and Calzabigi’s intentions. Here they contrast the “strong passions” of Alceste, in which “a wife about to lose her husband . . . has the courage to evoke the eternal gods in a terrible forest in the blackest shades of night” with “a young lover” who confronts “the waywardness of a lovely and honest woman; he at last triumphs by all the stratagems of consuming passion.”
Paride ed Elena is about pursuit, with those “stratagems of consuming passion,” and the emotional responses they generate, providing ample material for five short acts, especially with the helpful padding of amiable chorus and dance sequences. The presence of Amore (or Cupid), in the disguise of Helen’s confidant, Erasto—but in reality working for Paris’s success—gives the outcome an almost comic inevitability, notwithstanding Helen’s genuine anguish over the clash between her societal obligations (including those to an unnamed betrothed) and the yearnings of her heart. Further, she is really put out by Paris’s insufferable audacity. All this is astutely limned by Gluck’s music, but the prevailing tone is irrepressibly sunny.
The solid cast here was led by Meghan Lindsay, as Paris, and Mireille Asselin, as Helen. Lindsay has a sizable voice with notable resonance, as was quickly apparent from her expressive singing of Paris’s first aria, the familiar “O del mio dolce ardor,” which is sometimes excerpted. She was especially effective in projecting Paris’s distress brought on by fear of failure, but here and elsewhere her tone tended to turn harsh in full-voiced passages.
I have no complaints about Asselin’s Helen. Asselin sang with luminous clarity and vividly conveyed the character’s conflicted nature. A high point was her agitated performance of the aria “Lo potrò! Ma frattanto, oh infelice,” in which Helen’s torment comes to a head before she capitulates. Also fine was Erica Schuller, who sang charmingly as Amore and brought out the role’s sly humor. In a reverse deus ex machina appearance, Pallas Athene delivers a blistering prognosis of the couple’s troubles and the general misfortune to come. Dana Lynne Varga’s firmly sung performance as Pallas Athene conveyed all the fury of the role.
I hope someday to see a performance of Paride ed Elena that makes something of its latent eroticism. Here the principals were engagingly directed by Crystal Manich from the moment that Paris and Helen first looked at each other and everything came to a halt. But the stage setting (designed by Lindsay Fuori, with costumes by Brooke Stanton) was rudimentary, despite modernistic touches like enclosing the action in an irregular gilt frame and showing the bare backstage area. Melinda Sullivan’s choreography was fluent and aimed for a classical naturalness.
Gil Rose conducted the Odyssey Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a spirited, dramatically assured performance that used modern rather than period instruments. I would have welcomed a harpsichord to fill out instrumental textures, but the music was adequate without one. This was not the first time they have tackled Gluck. Three years ago they performed his Ezio (1750), a straight opera seria representative of the very kind of opera under attack by Gluck and Calzabigi’s “reform.” In truth, as Odyssey Opera has demonstrated with these two productions, Gluck wore two hats, each with assurance and style.
Paride ed Elena is the first of three Helen of Troy operas programmed by Opera Odyssey this season. Richard Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena follows in April, and Jacques Offenbach’s La belle Hélène opens in June.