Saturday 25 September 2021

Lyric intensity: Gluck's Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen) receives its first London staging from Bampton Classical Opera

Gluck: Paris and Helen - Ella Taylor, Lucy Anderson - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)
Gluck: Paris and Helen - Ella Taylor, Lucy Anderson - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)

Gluck Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen); Ella Taylor, Lucy Anderson, Lauren Lodge-Campbell, Jeremy Gray, Chroma, Thomas Blunt; Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Gluck's final Reform opera in a very rare staging which brings out the focused intensity of the drama in a production with a charming injection of humour too

When it comes to British performances of Gluck's final Viennese opera, Paride ed Elena, there are a lot of maybes. Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players performed it at the Barbican in 2003, which MAY have been the work's London premiere, and this year's revival of the work by Bampton Classical Opera could well be the work's first London staging. But then even in 18th century Vienna, Paride ed Elena rather lagged behind Gluck and librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi's other two operas, so that in the period to 1800, there were more than 100 performances of Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna, compared to more than 70 of Alceste and just 25 of Paride ed Elena.

So it was with great pleasure that I was able to encounter Gluck's Paride ed Elena, performed in a new English translation by Gilly French as Paris and Helen, with Bampton Classical Opera's performance at St John's Smith Square on Friday 24 September 2021. Thomas Blunt conducted Chroma, with a production directed and designed by Jeremy Gray, and choreographed by Alicia Frost. Ella Taylor was Paris, Lucy Anderson was Helen and Lauren Lodge-Campbell was Amor. There were two cast substitutions, Milly Forrest was a very last minute stand-in for Lisa Howarth as Pallas Athene with Lucy Cronin (from the ensemble) standing in as the high priestess, and tenor Adam Tunnicliffe sang the chorus tenor from the wings whilst stage manager Harvey Evans acted.

Gluck: Paris and Helen - Oliver Adam-Reynolds, Oscar Fonseca - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)
Gluck: Paris and Helen - Oliver Adam-Reynolds, Oscar Fonseca - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)

There is a lot of commonality between Paride ed Elena and Orfeo ed Euridice. Both concentrate on a trio of soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, both have a hero in a quest for his beloved and both, of course, weave in a considerable amount of dance. It is worthwhile remembering that Gluck and Calzabigi actually collaborated on four works, not just the three operas (Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste, Paride ed Elena), but their first joint effort was the ballet Don Juan and dance remains a very important element of their style. The idea was to mix the Italian and the French styles, so moving away from large-scale Italian da capo arias and incorporating choruses and dance in a flexible patchwork which owes a lot to French tragedie lyrique. 

But whereas Orfeo ed Euridice uses tragic intensity to propel the drama, Paride ed Elena is perhaps somewhat more relaxed. Paris' wooing of Helen, and her reluctance in the face of his intense passion, is well handled with some superb moments, but the overall idea behind the plot does not perhaps grip as much. And, of course, there is that curiously equivocal ending where Pallas Athene appears, thunders, warns of the impending Trojan War happening if they persist, yet the two still do so. In a way, the ending satirises the lieto fine which Italian opera required of tragedies, both Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste have such a forced happy end, but here the tables are turned and Pallas Athene's Deus ed Machina is ignored.

Gluck's three Reform opera all deal with the intensity of the love of a couple, yet he clearly wondered about Paride ed Elena. Unlike Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, he did not mine Paride ed Elena to create a French opera for Paris, in fact, elements of Paride ed Elena went into his French version of Orfeo.

Gluck: Paris and Helen - Lauren Lodge-Campbell, Ella Taylor - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)
Gluck: Paris and Helen - Lauren Lodge-Campbell, Ella Taylor - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)

But it is full of wonderful elements, the way Gluck and Calzabigi treat the drama flexibly, as characters interrupt each other and their fluidity of form is allowed to arise directly from the interactions of the text. Of course, it requires singers who can bring the right sort of tragic intensity and passion to vocal lines which need to continue to have shape and poise. And Bampton Classical Opera did very well indeed here.

Ella Taylor proved near ideal as Paris, they brought a bright flexibility to the vocal line and allowed a sense of tragic intensity to gradually build. Their solo which concluded Act Two was terrific, and it was simply part of a whole, we never doubted Paris' seriousness or passion. Yet Taylor never went over the top, they had the ability to convey this through the music and I loved the way they shaped the lines, so their performance of Paris' ardent, almost over the top, love song to Helen in Act Three (with harp accompaniment) was very much a highlight. 

The first Paris was the soprano castrato Giuseppe Millico who created the role of Orfeo in Gluck's Parma version of Orfeo ed Euridice with the title role transposed up for soprano castrato, and someone needs to invite Taylor to perform the Parma Orfeo ed Euridice, and quickly please.

Lucy Anderson made a superb foil as Helen, the opera only gradually brings her character into focus and I loved the way Anderson managed to balance Helen's clear attraction to Paris and her being taken aback at the sheer force of his passion. It is Helen's emotions which make the drama in the second half of the opera work so well as and Anderson brought out through the music the way Helen is torn between accepting Paris and rejecting. And Anderson had some of the more bravura elements in the opera (Gluck and Calzabigi weren't against these per se, just display for its own sake), in which Anderson shone.

Gluck: Paris and Helen - Lucy Anderson - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)
Gluck: Paris and Helen - Lucy Anderson - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)

With the rather perky role of Amor (in disguise as Erasto, Helen's counsellor), director Jeremy Gray brought an element of humour to the production, helping modern audiences to articulate what could otherwise be somewhat sober and too serious. Lauren Lodge-Campbell was delightful in the role, bringing a bright, clear sense of articulation to the vocal line and managing to inject some humour without sending up the plot. Milly Forrest made an impressive, and fearsome, Pallas Athene, whilst Lucy Cronin was a poised high priestess. The vocal ensemble were highly active in the drama and Evans and Tunnicliffe almost managed to convince us with their double act of singing and acting.

Gilly French's new English translation of the work brought a colloquial element to the drama as well as a bit more humour than perhaps Gluck and Calzabigi might have envisaged. The singers made terrific efforts at conquering the acoustic and getting the words over.

The dance element was not stinted, and Oliver Adam-Reynolds and Oscar Fonseca (both of whom trained at the Urdang Academy) impressed with their combination of athleticism (at one point they were dancing athletes), poise and, where needed, humour. They also moved the minimal scenery with great wit.

Conductor Thomas Blunt and Chroma were placed at the back of the stage, visible through the scenery. Blunt and the relatively small instrumental ensemble made great virtue of the litheness that a few instruments is able to create. Blunt really encouraged the players to bring out the driving rhythms and drama of Gluck's music, forming a powerful complement to the poised vocal lines, yet there was plenty of instrumental style too.

Paride ed Elena is never going to achieve the popularity of Gluck's other operas, and certainly requires rather special singers in the solo roles. Bampton and its cast did the opera full justice and despite the small scale of the staging, the power, intensity and imagination of Gluck's writing really came over.

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