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.