Obscure operas are often obscure for a reason and a revival proves it. Crystal Manich’s winning and amusing production of Gluck’s Paride ed Elena for Odyssey Opera proved exactly the opposite. Lacking the lofty, tragic grandeur of Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, casting a minor deity as comic relief, and employing a dea ex machina whose dire prophecy undermines rather than effects a lieto fine, Gluck’s third and final collaboration with librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi takes reform down a subversive path audiences at the time did not seem ready to follow, earning it far fewer performances and nearly 150 years in limbo. Contemporary audiences, steeped in the conventions of cinematic and television romcoms, have no problem appreciating Paride ed Elena’s ambiguity, its confounding of the dramatic and comic, nor its narrative arc of boy meets girl/girl couldn’t care less, as they first become frenemies before finally falling in love, with a helpful nudge from friends and confidantes.

Mireille Asselin (Elena) and Meghan Lindsay (Paride) © Kathy Wittman
Mireille Asselin (Elena) and Meghan Lindsay (Paride)
© Kathy Wittman

Odyssey was fortunate to have three sopranos of different color and weight, with solid backgrounds in early music, and who knew how to make the most of Gluck’s recitative. Though only betrothed to Menelaos in the opera’s version of events, Mireille Asselin’s vocally and visually alluring Helen still must convey an array of conflicting emotions as she sheds her Spartan reserve and entertains the possibility of Paris. Gluck’s music subtly charts the transformation, but it still requires a skilled singer-actress like Asselin to exploit it to the fullest. Her portrayal reached its acme with a whirlwind performance of “Lo temei: non mi sento” closing Act 4.

With blond hair pulled back off her forehead and falling straight and severe to just below the ear, Meghan Lindsay's Paris brought to mind Glenn Close. She carried herself with the poise of a prince, but also conveyed her character’s volatility, particularly when thwarted. Lindsay’s voice has a notably warm and rounded quality in its low and middle range, but, initially, that richness didn’t carry into the upper reaches which tended to cut like steel. Even though she sounded more settled after intermission, Act 3 from Paris’ song “Quegli occhi belli” through its roller-coaster of emotions and incident to its closing despair elicited some of her best singing and acting.

Erica Schuller (Cupid) © Kathy Wittman
Erica Schuller (Cupid)
© Kathy Wittman

Erica Schuller’s engaging Erasto/Amore was key to that scene’s success as well. With the high energy and irreverence of a gawky adolescent, she needled both Paris and Helen with snarky asides. She had already taken the audience into her confidence with the pointed delivery of her very first solo closing Act 1, as she coyly revealed her intentions and her true identity by dropping one side of her cloak to reveal a wing which intermittently spread then folded back up while she sang. Dana Lynne Varga’s commanding voice and presence turned Athena into a Baroque Erda as she warned of the consequences of the lovers succumbing to their passion. And once again Odyssey assembled a chorus which sang with the dramatic weight and power of a much larger ensemble. Gil Rose’s reduced orchestra played with a steady, buoyant drive.

Sets and costumes economically evoked a classical setting with Lindsay Fuori’s series of drapes and fabric drops lit evocatively to create the spaces required.

Meghan Lindsay (Paride) © Kathy Wittman
Meghan Lindsay (Paride)
© Kathy Wittman

Melinda Sullivan’s choreography captured the spirit of reform ballet, which went hand-in-hand with Gluck and Calzabigi’s operatic innovations. Four men and four women performed barefoot; steps, leaps, and elevations were graceful and modest, and the emphasis was on pantomime and tableaux. Flowing costumes added to a feeling of classical friezes brought to life. Twice pairs of dancers moved and mimed in the background: a man and a woman in dark tunics spotted with lights fading in and out like Paris’ “Belle immagini d’un dolce amore” at the end of Act 2 and two women in flowing light grey who echoed Helen’s turmoil in her aria closing Act 4. As the stage pantomime turned increasingly unsettled and turbulent with each repeat of the closing chorus, it became clear that love would conquer all, including Troy, as Athena predicted.

Helen of Troy is the theme for this half of Odyssey’s season with a concert performance of Die Ägyptische Helena and a staged presentation of La Belle Hélène to follow. If they are performed as well as Paride ed Elena, then the epithet might have to be changed to, “the face that launched a thousand plaudits”!

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