Paride Ed Elena
George Bernard Shaw said of Gluck (1714 -- 1787) that "the man is a great master". Shaw's dictum receives more and more corroboration, if any is thought necessary, with every release of a new recording of Gluck. This 2005 recording of Gluck's rarely-performed 1770 opera "Paride ed Elena" is a revelation indeed. Paul McCreesh conducts the Gabrieli Consort, on period instruments, and Gabrieli Players. A cast of four sopranos in the lead roles provides an inspiring listening experience.
Gluck was one of music's great reformers. In a series of three operas written for performance in Vienna with librettist Ranieri de'Calzabigi, the composer tried to strip down the florid style of opera of his day and to create works in which music and text combined for dramatic effect. In his musical programme, Gluck was a predecessor of Hector Berlioz, his great admirer, and of Wagner and Hugo Wolf. The two earlier Gluck-Calzabigi collaborations, Orfeo, and Alceste, are better-known than the third "Paride ed Elena". But this work is their equal.
The five-act Paride ed Elena tells the story of Paris's wooing and winning of Helen, then of Sparta, following his judgment in favor of Venus in the famous beauty contest of the goddesses. Paris's abduction of Helen, of course, became the cause of the Trojan War, but Gluck downplays this consequence for most of his opera. He focuses instead on the power of love and passion in both of his primary characters. Soprano Magdalena Kozena sings Paris in an appropriately impulsive, romantic style, while Susan Gritton, as the initially reluctant Helen, displays both coyness and the power of love and eros when it is awakened. Carolyn Sampson sings the part of Cupid, who appears in the opera in disguise as Erasto, a page of Helen's and functions as a go-between to promote Paris's suit. Gillian Webster makes a stormy appearance as the spurned Pallas Athena, foreboding the conflict between Greece and Troy at the end of the opera.
This opera is full of lovely music for orchestra, chorus, soloists and ensembles. Ir includes several extended ballets in the first and second act which would be a joy to see with dancers. Gluck wrote the recitiv sections for full orchestra, and McCreesh thus does not add a continuo accompaniment. The recitives blend seamlessly into the arias, giving a dramatically effective flow and minimizing the "statuesque" interpretations of Gluck found in some recordings. Many of the choral passages, and recitivs as well, are interspersed with melodic material and solos.
In a key scene of the opera, Paris accompanies himself on the lyre in a lovely, flowing melody in one of his first attempts to win Helen's heart. This scene reminded me of the related moment in Orfeo, when Orfeo sings with his lute to tame the furies of Hades. Paris has a number of exquisite love songs in addition, including "Le belle immagini" in Act II. Helen has several sharp arias in which she tries to rebuff Paris, including "Forse piu d'una belta (track 18, Act II) and her duet with Paris "fingere piu non so" (track 31, Act II). Helen weakens in her resolve to resist Paris in "Lo Portro" (track 10, Act IV), sings a stormy aria of men's betrayal "Donzelle simplici" (track 12, act IV), and ultimately surrenders to her feelings just before the appearance of Pallas Athena. The opera ends in a moment of peace and triumph as the new couple sail to Troy.
This recording of Paris ed Helena won deserved critical acclaim when it was released in 2005. Paul McCreesh and DG have done a great service in making Gluck's beautiful and lyric opera available to a wide public.