Paris and Helen – Opera in five Acts to a libretto by Raniero da Calzabigi [sung in English to an English translation by Gilly French]
Paris – Ella Taylor
Helen – Lucy Anderson
Amor – Lauren Lodge-Campbell
Pallas Athena – Lisa Howarth
Trojans – Lisa Howarth, Benjamin Durrant, Lucy Cronin & Alex Jones
Dancers – Oliver Adam-Reynolds & Oscar Fonseca
Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera
Jeremy Gray – Director & Designer
Alicia Frost – Choreographer
Jess Iliff – Costume Designer
Ian Chandler – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 23 July, 2021
Venue: The Deanery Garden, Bampton, Oxfordshire, UK
Paris and Helen (Paride ed Elena, 1770) was the third of the ‘Reform’ operas by Gluck and his librettist Raniero da Calzabigi (after Orfeo and Alceste) but it retains some of the aspects of Baroque opera, particularly in the genre’s French form. Although written in Italian for performance in Vienna (and, unlike its operatic siblings, not subsequently adapted for the French stage) Paris and Helen features the spectacle of dance and a dramatic appearance by the goddess Athene towards the end. Indeed, like the operas of Lully and Rameau, the drama which enfolds shows – in however cheerful a fashion – a human situation which is set up in advance by divine powers or fate. Although there is no formal prologue in which any gods convene to contrive this, as often in those earlier tragédies lyriques, that device is seemingly referenced in Jeremy Gray’s production by having the figure of Amor appear during the Overture, flicking through a copy of the Iliad (to allude to the momentous war which will follow as a result of Paris and Helen’s falling in love) and Ovid (whose racy literature serves as an exemplar for their passion). Amor interacts with the pair in disguise as Erasto, Helen’s counsellor, to spur on their romance, whilst the goddess of love (who had promised the beautiful princess to Paris) is conjured in this performance by means of a reproduction of Botticelli’s celebrated depiction of her in the Birth of Venus.
Gluck’s opera actually presents a more-coy version of the origins of their relationship, as Helen makes considerable effort to resist Paris’s advances; and, although she does succumb in the end, it is not strictly an adulterous transgression as she is only betrothed Menelaus here, rather than married to him already. Two buff male dancers take the part of the athletes who contribute the choreography for the ballet interludes – some of which are supposed to constitute a games tournament for the Spartans in Gluck’s original. As such they bring a sense of the Classical ideal of physical bodily perfection and perhaps also, in their contests, a subtly homoerotic edge to underline the amorous campaign being waged by Paris upon Helen.
The cast express a fair degree of Baroque passion in their performances nonetheless. Ella Taylor is a versatile Paris, turning from eloquent restraint at one moment (for example the song in which he woos Helen, accompanied by harp, which surely looks back to a similarly scored number in Orfeo ed Euridice) to vociferous declaration of purpose at another in the crisp and solid presence of their singing. Lucy Anderson voices Helen’s initially indignant refusal to countenance Paris’s attentions with her robust performance, if at times a touch squally. Tellingly she expresses most fervour in her aria at the end of Act Four where, like Fiordiligi, she resolves to have none of it, but the audience already knows full well where her conflicted emotions will lead her.
Lauren Lodge-Campbell interprets the disguised god Amor playfully, with a sort of flutter in her rendition to evoke the mischievous encouragement she gives to Paris and Helen, somewhat like the coquettish Despina, to refer to Cosí fan tutte again. Her charming duet with Paris in Act One is a good example. Lisa Howarth makes a coaxingly stern Athena as she makes a futile attempt to warn the lovers of the consequences of their actions, before Helen sails away to Troy. She and Benjamin Durrant also have some brief but emphatic solos as Trojan followers of Paris.
Thomas Blunt and the Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera create a due sense of occasion with the ceremonial overture and in the livelier sections of the score, even if the trumpets and horns sometimes slip up in their intonation. But it is in the softer, slower music that the ensemble often sounds particularly well integrated (for instance the minor-key trio of Act IV) and Rita Schindler on the harp provides a gentle and unobtrusive rippling accompaniment in Paris’s arioso.
Altogether the production demonstrates that Gluck and Calzabigi’s Classicism need not be austere (even if Gilly French’s translation avails itself of less wit than previous Bampton projects) and that this rarely performed opera can be as exquisitely rewarding as any of the composer’s better-known examples.
Further performances on 24 July (Bampton), 30 August (Westonbirt School) & 24 September (London, St John’s Smith Square)