Spartan Gluck Given the Gabrieli Gloss (21 October)

Paride ed Elena

Paride (Paris) – Magdalena Kožená
Elena (Helen) – Susan Gritton
Amore (Cupid) – Carolyn Sampson

Pallade (Pallas Athene/Minerva) – Gillian Webster
A Trojan – Daniel Auchincloss

Gabrieli Consort and Players
Paul McCreesh

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 21 October, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Perhaps feeling cheated of a Greek mythology Prom (turning in one of the Proms highlight regardless in a stunning performance of Handel’s first great English oratorio, Saul), Paul McCreesh brought his Gabrieli Consort and Players to the Barbican Centre’s Great Performer’s series for a performance of the last (an certainly least known) ’Italian reform’ operas, Paride ed Elena – Paris and Helen.

Composed for Vienna in 1770, following the successes of Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Alceste (1767), Paride ed Elena was to be the last Italian opera Gluck wrote before moving to Paris to conquer the opera world there.In its subject matter it is unusual in that it eschews the great events of the Trojan war and concentrates the amorous war of attrition young Paris wages on a rather prim and tight-lipped Helen after the young Trojan had been promised the most beautiful girl in the world by choosing Venus as the most gorgeous goddess.Helen proves a hard nut to crack, and Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi certainly go against type by making her a morally rigorous character, torn by her duty to (the completely unseen and unheard) Meneleus.Only in the final act, after constant effort by Cupid who has wheedled his way into Helen’s service, does she eventually fall for Paris. The final chorus is a triumphant one, despite Pallade’s godly warning of the horrors of war which will ensue if they do travel together back to Troy.

So an interesting slant to the age-old tale (more akin to Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène) and given a rousing performance by McCreesh and his all-female cast (save a male chorus member of the Gabrieli Consort, Daniel Auchincloss, stepping forward as a Trojan).As befitted the trouser role of Paris (originally sung by a castrato – the last role for castrato Gluck wrote), Kožená wore trousers, albeit of a distinctly non-male diaphanous character, as were the teetering stilettos!Standing awkwardly with arched spine leaning slightly back she cut an odd figure, but vocally there was nothing to complain about.As if to indicate the buttoned-up nature of Helen’s character as envisaged by composer and librettist, Susan Gritton appeared with hair pulled tightly back and in full skirt, while Carolyn Sampson fleshed out the pivotal role of Cupid with insouciant ease.

The opera’s form is highly unusual, with music purposefully created by Gluck to contrast the spartan Spartans (’rude and savage’ is how Gluck puts it) and the softer and more delicate Trojans, and also in some of the ground-breaking ensembles, particularly the elongated aria for Paris, “Quegli occhi belli”, where each of its four verses are broken by impassioned denials by Helen.There is also some good ballet music, which comes early on.

Needless to say McCreesh was a persuasive advocate in a score he obviously loves, his soloists – on a slightly raised plinth at the right side of the orchestra – fully committed.A recording is due from Deutsche Grammophon and will no doubt supersede the two others listed in the Viking Opera Guide (Zagrosek on Orfeo, and Schneider for Capriccio in 1992), and is – at least by this writer – eagerly awaited.

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