By Keith Powers
BOSTON – Resisting Cupid proves futile. Even for the most beautiful mortal of all.
Helen tries her best not to love Paris, but that rascal Cupid makes sure she does in the end. We know what that launched – and Gluck’s opera Paride ed Elena details how it began.
Odyssey Opera staged the opera Feb. 15 at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Theatre. An early-in-the-narrative look at the events that triggered the Trojan War, Gluck’s tightly focused opera spins the deeply personal story of Paris, fresh from his notorious judgment, and the stalwart Helen, unaware that she is his prize and the instigator of much future conflict.
An all-soprano cast worked with Odyssey Opera music director Gil Rose and stage director Crystal Manich to stage this taut drama. The action begins when Paris lands in Sparta to woo its future queen, and ends when she leaves with him for Troy – having been cajoled and downright coerced into a love affair with disastrous consequences.
Meghan Lindsay sang as the determined suitor Paris, and Mireille Asselin was his objet d’amour. Erica Schuller took the role of Cupid, who hides in plain sight, disguised as Helen’s servant Erasto. Melinda Sullivan provided integrated choreography for eight dancers who swirled in and around Manich’s stage conception. A lusty chorus sang a minor role and its members acted as supernumeraries. A chamber orchestra with winds, harp, trumpet, and timpani worked under Rose’s direction in the Huntington pit.
Paride ed Elena opens the spring portion of Opera Odyssey’s season, which continues its exploration of Helen’s story in operas by Strauss (Die ägyptische Helena, in April) and Offenbach (La belle Hélène, in June). Paride ed Elena is part of a trio of works that Gluck (1714–87) deemed “reform” operas – works that marked the shift from Baroque to Classical opera styles. Gluck’s mythological tale “is a weird fascination,” Rose said. “These transition works – it’s the communication in them that’s so direct.”
That’s what Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “reform” was all about. The composer, along with librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi (1714–95), had a mission to strip opera of its excessive ornamentations. Ostentatious librettos and florid singing styles were abandoned for more direct lyrics and music. Da capo arias, long melismas – almost any virtuosic display either onstage or in the pit – gave way to simple melodic lines, tighter action, and more direct characterizations.
That invests Paride ed Elena with a thoroughly modern feeling. The duo play out an agonizing courtship: Paris, sure of his “prize” and the outcome of his wooing; and Helen, loyal and fundamentally unwilling to betray her chosen destiny or her nation, resisting fate.
Manich and Sullivan, obviously working with limited budgets – the sets were mostly simple drapes and curtains, with a riser center-stage – still did insightful work capturing the essence of Gluck’s reform ideas. Stylishly choreographed dance interludes and accents interrupt the narrative. Frequent tableaux and gestures played important symbolic roles. For instance, when the lovers finally sail from Sparta, Cupid assumes a pose as the ship’s figurehead, literally leading the couple to their destiny.
Helen has the beauty, but Paris has the beautiful arias. Repeatedly, the son of Priam melts Helen’s heart with music. All the parts were written for castrati – which challenges casting requirements; turning the role of Paris into a soprano trouser role was a master stroke.
From “O del mio dolce ardor” (O my gentle love) to the dramatic “Di te scordarmi, e vivere” (To forget you, and live), Lindsay sang the suitor’s role with high power. There are some inviting dark tones in her instrument, but this is a lofty part, and Lindsay delivered it all with confident clarity and presence. Paris’ physical appearance – well-coached “manly” gestures, a wild blond wig – completed the visual gender transformation.
Schuller sang Cupid with a Puckish glee. A pair of cached wings beneath Erasto’s tunic added a comic touch, and there was lots of light humor. But Cupid is there to unfold the destiny that others have planned. The trio “Ah, lo veggo” (Ah, I see it), with Erasto concealed behind a thin scrim, drove home emphatically the behind-the-scenes machinations of the gods.
Almost all of Helen’s character gets revealed from Asselin’s facial mannerisms, perhaps an unintentional bit of stage-craft symbolism for the most beautiful of mortals. Slyly pointing out a handsome athlete to her cohort, struggling to maintain composure as Paris sings, eyes blazing in frustrated fury – Asselin’s face unmasked Helen’s personality. She acted and sang marvelously.
The music in the pit was largely refined accompaniment. A long harp solo (Krysten Keches Smilkov) accompanying one of Paris’ many pleas for affection – “Quegli occhi belli” (Those beautiful eyes) – stood out as one of the few instrumental solos. But inviting musical lines snaked their way through the dance scenes and many arias.
Odyssey Opera’s season continues April 19 with Richard Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena. For information and tickets, go here.
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to email@example.com.