Gluck Paride ed Elena
Paride ed Elena was the third and last of the so-called ‘reform’ operas on which Gluck collaborated with the librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. Their intention was to replace what they saw as the excesses of Metastasian opera seria with a purer, simpler style that didn’t sacrifice dramatic truth on the altar of the vanity of singers.
Orfeo ed Euridice has never been out of the repertory; Alceste is occasionally revived, usually in the rewritten French version. But Paride ed Elena was the star that didn’t shine: a few performances in Vienna following its premiere in 1770, a production in Naples, then complete oblivion until the 20th century. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera cites a production in Prague in 1901, a cut version in Hamburg four years later, then no staged performances until it was revived at Drottningholm in 1987.
It was there in 1998 that Paride was sung by Magdalena Kozená; and if this underestimated opera can be restored to the repertory, she is the one to do it. On the face of it, its neglect is understandable. All the parts are written for soprano – the first Paride was a castrato – and nothing much happens. Helen, not married to Menelaus but betrothed, resists Paris’s ardent protestations of love. Paris has an ally in Erasto, Helen’s confidant, who turns out to be Cupid (Amore) in disguise; Helen yields in the end and the lovers happily sail away to Troy and the heap of trouble promised by Pallas Athene (Pallade).
Apart from the lack of incident, another drawback is the recitative: not secco but accompagnato, sometimes with telling phrases or effects in the orchestra, but all too often with acres of sustained chords. It’s unreasonable to chide Gluck for not being Handel or Mozart, but lesser contemporaries like Hasse, Jommelli and Traetta were writing better stuff. The wonder of this recording is that the soloists sing the words with such attention to their meaning, so – in a word – dramatically, as to silence criticism.
In the first meeting of the lovers – one of the more imaginative recitatives, admittedly – their instant mutual attraction is palpable through the breathless delivery of the text. But Magdalena Kozená and Susan Gritton bring the same intensity to the long exchange in which Paris disingenuously cites the episode of Leda and the swan as a precedent for Helen, Leda’s daughter, to follow. Gluck then provides an aria for Paris, pervaded by a violin ostinato of near-Bachian profundity, and a desperate outburst by Helen, both quite wonderfully sung.
Kozená, whether putting across the restlessness of Paris’s first aria or the mixture of anxiety and resolution in ‘Le belle immagini’, or bringing an exquisite mezza voce to the set-piece in praise of Helen, is out of this world. Susan Gritton and Carolyn Sampson not only handle the recitatives with the same subtlety but sing their arias magnificently. One or two reservations about Paul McCreesh’s direction are insignificant in the context of the overall sweep of the drama. The Gabrieli Consort and Players are excellent, the high horns especially. It’s hard to imagine this set ever being surpassed.