IN: Reviews

Love’s Labored Lauds

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Meghan Lindsay as Paride, Mireille Asselin as Elena, and Erica Schuller above as Amore (Kathy Wittman photo)

Swift upon the heels of Cupid, Odyssey Opera claimed the Boston premiere laurels for Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Paride ed Elena. Gil Rose conducted and Crystal Manich stage directed the production which opened Friday night at Huntington Avenue Theater and repeats on Sunday afternoon. The company’s three-part spring series based on the mythical beauty Helen continues with Richard Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena in April and Jacques Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène in June.

Following the success of their groundbreaking Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, Gluck and librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi joined forces for their third and final Italian “reform” opera in 1770. Again they drew on ancient Greek sources to advance an aesthetic principle of “noble simplicity,” whereby music eschews ornamental excess in the interest of serving genuine emotion and dramatic action. The literally epic consequences to the union that launched a thousand ships notwithstanding, Gluck and Calzabigi’s Paride ed Elena emerged as the cheeriest of their three collaborative operas, a will-they, won’t-they, of-course-they-will romance that ends right as the lovers set sail for Troy, pledging eternal devotion to each other. Elena’s elopement merely breaks an abstract betrothal, not an existing marriage to the vengeful House of Atreus. Amore (Eros), under cover as the impish intermediary Erasto, not only instigates much of the action, but also lifts the entire atmosphere aloft throughout, such that not even angry Athene’s prophecy of doom dampens the mood for long.

The trio of soprano leads, all limber and engaging in their Odyssey debuts, delivered their lines with organic authenticity, as if uttering and acting upon thoughts as they occur in real time.

Meghan Lindsay’s Paride strode the stage with a heroic, clarion effulgence. Mid-word consonants sometimes struggled to stay afloat the mellifluent stream of her radiant vowels, but that is a bargain price for a prize performance. A hint of hesitation and tenseness clenched at Mireille Asselin’s Elena at first, but in keeping with her character development, she softened and opened up considerably later on. As the sly matchmaker Amore, Erica Schuller goaded both with a delightfully nimble puckishness. In her brief appearance as Pallade Athene, Dana Lynne Varga inveighed with appropriate aplomb.

Overall sound quality suffered from a somewhat stiff acoustic. Lindsay, Schuller, and Varga broke through the barrier with only cosmetic tarnish to tones which in a livelier space could have expansively enveloped and soared. In juxtaposition, Asselin’s delicate Elena sometimes threatened to dissolve into diaphaneity. The chorus sounded sandy, the orchestra subdued.

Rare is the opera orchestra that never competes with solo singers. Rose led an even-gaited and cautious performance, well-balanced within the pit, but at times less than fully audible under the vocalists. They could have played out more—certainly in the purely instrumental passages—in both volume and expressiveness, adding greater dynamic range and clearer contrast between Sparta’s clipped cadence and Troy’s lyrical lilt.

Choreography trod a dainty line of Baroque-inflected ballet with a sprinkling of references to classical and neoclassical art and some steps towards modern dance that later devolved into an embarrassing spectacle of sea anemone-like writhing.

Costumes mostly struck a simple, tasteful Grecian note, with only two major exceptions: Amore’s wings, which resembled a middle-school drama club’s approximation of a fruit bat, and the purple streamers that attached from the rafters to Athene’s waistline, which made her look more like a drag queen channeling Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid than the goddess of wisdom, and resulted in distractingly clumsy execution on stage. Elena and many of the women choristers wore graceful hair stylings that sang their own unheard odes to Grecian urns.

The often-inexplicable lighting plan accentuated even more perplexing sets. The first half unfurled under a canopy of what looked like gold lamé stretch-fabric more suitable as leggings for Marisa Tomei’s character in My Cousin Vinny; the second half under the disco-ball glitter of a chandelier born of a drunken one-night-stand between a bead curtain and a jellyfish. Draperies hung in varying configurations as curtains and columns, which could have served as cleverly elegant and budget-friendly admixtures of texture and articulation, had they not screamed of cheap petrochemical derivatives and shoddy stitching (or dire need of steam-pressing) even to the back row of the house. Set and lighting design detracted so significantly that I wondered if even the music quality would sound much more professional with my eyes closed. The leads’ animated acting, however, kept me watching.

As with Harvard University Choir’s concert revival of Gluck and Calzabigi’s also too-rarely-performed Alceste last October, I applaud Odyssey Opera in ushering Paride ed Elena’s welcome return to living repertoire, and hope both worthy works sail forth as in the latter’s final scene, amidst calm waves and gentle breezes, with the guiding hand of Love at the helm.

CJ Ru, Yale Ph.D. candidate in history, previously served tours of duty in the administrative offices of San Francisco Opera and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale.
Act 1, Scene 1: Paride arrives in Sparta (Kathy Wittman photo)

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  1. Total agreement about the directing and design shipwreck around Athena at the end, especially as the singer portraying the goddess commanded the stage with voice and physical presence that didn’t need all the superfluous frou frou.

    Of all the Gluck operas I have heard — Ezio, Orfeo, Alceste, Iphigenie, and Paride ed Elena, I was most taken with this one. Gluck seemed to me to have written far more interesting and expressive recitatives in this opera than in the others, as well as one gorgeous aria after another, particularly as sung by the superb cast Gil Rose had assembled. A rich and enjoyable afternoon at the opera on Sunday.

    William Fregosi (retired scenic designer for the Associate Artists opera, Intermezzo Chamber Opera,
    Boston Lyric Opera and for Theater Arts at MIT

    Comment by William Fregosi — February 18, 2019 at 12:02 pm

  2. Very good review (disclosure: I recruited Ms. Ru at an Emmanuel concert). But just a few comments. On the singing: Mireille Asselin sounded tentative in the beginning, but she really came into her own by Act IV, and the trio with Lindsay and Schuller was the high spot in the production—beautiful music sung extremely well. And the bit of the chorus part, sung as a solo by Sean Malkus in Act Three, got the first spontaneous applause of the performance (Sun. aft.). He amply deserved it. Altho’ he gets small notice in the program, turns out he has performed in several Lowell House operas. We usually attend, but not the Ariadne auf Naxos, in which he was Bacchus. Damn! Brian Schuth noted his “fine voice” and that he “sings with style”; in addition, his diction is superb, every word in Italiano chiaro. On the set: I thought it was extremely effective., esp. the hung “columns” of gold and white. The only perhaps over/the-top bit was the purple streamers that the chorus was pinning onto Athena’s shoulders. I winced in fear that they were to lift her into the sky “deus-ex-macchina” style. Thank god, no, but the purpose eluded me. On the orchestra: it did sound a bit muted in the first half, but I suspect it was due to Gil Rose’s so careful attention to the singer’s projection (alluded, above). In fine, a fine performance, another fine contribution from Odyssey Opera.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — February 18, 2019 at 12:30 pm

  3. At the Sunday afternoon performance, I too was captivated by the high quality of singing by all four soprano leads, well-differentiated from one another in vocal timbre as in the music composed for them. Gil Rose’s ensemble of top-notch strings, winds, and brasses provided rhythmically consistent and sonorously colorful underpinning. (In a pastoral interlude for instruments alone, pizzicato strings combined with the harp to magical effect.) Stage direction of the handsomely costumed singers and dancers was generally effective, and the seamless integration of the ballet sequences with the vocal numbers seemed entirely natural. Some incongruities in the production, on the other hand, seemed like too-busy attempts to state the obvious: did we really need the emotional travails of the lovers to be shadowed by a pair of black-clad dancers? All in all, however, I enjoyed the performance tremendously. Thanks to Gil Rose and Odyssey opera for bringing us yet another neglected gem.

    Comment by Virginia Newes — February 18, 2019 at 5:09 pm

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