Though his name rings bright and clear in the history of opera, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s works are more often mentioned than performed. His renown for being the “reformer” of Metastasian opera seria has naturally placed most attention on the three Italian operas he composed to librettos of Ranieri de’ Calzabigi in the 1760s and the still more elaborate operas he composed for France in the following decade.
Boston’s opera-goers have been fortunate in the least three years to encounter two of the less well-known operas of Gluck and thereby expand their experience and understanding of his operatic work. Not surprisingly, this opportunity has been made available by Odyssey Opera and its ever-curious conductor Gil Rose, who constantly seeks to present worthy scores that have not been performed here. In 2016 the company produced Gluck’s Ezio, a Roman opera based on a Metastasio libretto, but already showing signs of novelty in the treatment of Baroque forms.
When he arrived in Vienna in the early 1760s, Gluck was determined to do away with the complex poetic similes that filled Metastasian aria texts and to be more down-to-earth. He did this most effectively in setting three libretti by Calzabigi: Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), Alceste (1767), and Paride ed Elena (1770). The last-named was Gluck’s final Italian opera composed for Vienna. For the next decade he composed operas in French, for Paris.
While working in Paris, Gluck had two of his Calzabigi librettos adapted into French texts and reworked the operas according to Parisian taste. But Paride et Elena was seen by both librettist and composer as a less successful work, and they did not bother to attempt a French adaptation. After the Viennese performances, Paride ed Elena was performed in Naples in 1777 and then evidently, never again until 1901 in Prague. It is still by a long shot the least often performed of Gluck’s reform-era operas.
On the strength of the Odyssey Opera production on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, this lack of early success is surprising. To be sure, both Orfeo and Alceste had plots that were ore intensely dramatic, both involving the possibility of a conclusion ending in death. Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen) is clearly linked, by way of its title characters, to the Trojan War. But the opera precedes the war; there are no deaths in heroic battle, no sacrifice of Iphigeneia to gain favorable winds in sailing to Troy, no massed battles of men supported or impeded by gods, no Trojan horse, no massacre of Trojans once the city walls have been breached. The basic plot tells of Paris’s seduction of Helen and his persuading her to come to Troy with him. Compared to the frightful events of the Trojan War, this opera is essentially a light comedy of seduction with moments of thoughtful emotion but barely an inkling of the consequences to follow. (Offenbach’s Fair Helen, which will conclude the Odyssey season in mid-June, deals with the seduction in an even wittier way.)
The setting of Paride ed Elena is Sparta, where Helen is betrothed (not yet married to Menelaus, as she is in most versions of the story). The cast is small: Helen, Paris, and Cupid (disguised as a young man named Erasto through most of the work), and a late appearance by Athena. There is also a chorus (with a couple of small solo parts) and a set of dancers, four men and four women. With three singers responsible for virtually the entire opera, running close to three hours, Gluck took pains not to exhaust his singing cast unduly by adding a number of dances and processions in which the orchestra can take over and give the singers a chance to catch their breaths. Moreover the dancers, clad in white Greek tunics, disport themselves in a variety of ways that seem drawn straight from the paintings on some Grecian urn. Sometimes the dancers are simply celebrating, or taking part in sporting events, and sometimes they echo the moods of one or another character, especially during the reflective arias. In these cases, there are occasaionally two dancers dressed in black tunics that function as the interior emotions of the singers.
The three singers taking the principal parts—all making Odyssey debuts in this production—could hardly have been bettered vocally, physically, or dramatically.
In the original 1770 production, Paris was sung by a soprano castrato. In modern performances, countertenors often take the castrato roles, which are abundant in 18th-century opera. But the part of Paris is unusually high for a male countertenor, so it was given to Meghan Lindsay, who, with a blue Greek tunic and a short blond wig (cut in a Prince Valiant style) created an athletic hero with a voice that blended suavely with that of the other two principals. (Elegant and elaborate duetting in thirds and sixths is a regular feature of the opera.)
Cupid (Erasto) was brilliantly represented as a playful young man, full of pranks and bright ideas, by Erica Schuller. Short brown curls (like something from a Greek bust), lively energy, and a sly air of sharing his plans with the audience made it clear that he would find a way to reach the designated goal of bringing about Helen’s falling in love with Paris.
Helen herself, the renowned ancient beauty (fully aware of her charms) was sung by Mireille Assellin, who first appeared at the beginning of the second act with an air of charming self-assurance such that butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Though she kept insisting that she was promised to Menelaus and intended to keep her vow, she was gradually brought to make the fatal decision of going to Troy with Paris.
Throughout the five acts (played here with a single intermission), Calzabigi provides dialogue of warmth, wit, and charm that gives Gluck material for arias, duets, and trios of greatly varied moods and tempos, so that the outcome seems to be in doubt for some time, as Helen remains sternly unwilling to be convinced by Paris. (Offenbach’s Fair Helen provides a deliciously different version in the operetta to be performed byk Odyssey in June. She is comically resigned in the knowledge that she must succumb to Paris and enjoys dramatic apostrophes with hand to brow:“Ah, Fate!”) Such yielding is also inevitable in Gluck’s opera, and is received with high spirits—even after a dea ex machina warning from Athena (forcefully sung by Dana Lynne Varga, who has previously been heard here in Der Zwerg in 2017).
The simplicity and directness of the opera’s musical design invites “classical” approaches to the look of the opera. The designers have satisfied these possibilities with clear, effective, and pleasing costumes (Brooke Stanton), especially the distinct styles of the three principals and Athena’s dynamic exploding outfit. Lindsay Fuori’s use of various colors and shapes of semi-transparent drapery to suggest rooms, pillars, and other spaces, all of which can be changed in a matter of seconds while retaining a lightness of effect was a visual delight, especially as illuminated by Russell Champa. As mentioned already, the choreography, by Melinda Sullivan, contributes vividly to the lively atmosphere of the Spartan setting. Supervising everything on stage, Crystal Manich shaped the process by which Helen comes to make her decision for Paris and made the effective decision to use dancers as a means of projecting the inner thoughts of Paris and Helen when they were alone.
As regular attendees at Odyssey productions have long since come to recognize, the musical direction with Gil Rose always in excellent form, whatever period or style of opera is presented, and whatever size of orchestra is called for. The vigor, lyricism, and energy of the orchestra, as well as the balance and ensemble with soloists, chorus, and dancers, projected this rare but attractive and worthy opera with imagination for our delight.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.