“Paride ed Elena” changed opera forever. Almost nobody has ever heard of it.
Largely neglected since its 1770 debut, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera gets a rare staging by Odyssey Opera for one weekend—Feb. 15 and 17, at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. OO Music director Gil Rose was intrigued by the work because of the way it acts as a transitional piece from the Baroque to the modern era.
“Gluck was the hinge,” Rose says. “He wrote earlier works in the opera seria style, with the focus on the solo singer, the virtuosity. Then he changed the focus to drama, stripped away the endless arias, the repeats, and the ornamentation. Gluck made opera into theater.”
“Paride ed Elena” belongs to a trilogy known as the Reform Operas, for the way they sit on the cusp of changing eras. Gluck (1714–87) began his composing career in the Baroque, with operas that ignored plot and focused on the skill of the performers. Baroque operas were an excuse to sing extravagantly; after his innovations, opera became more theatrical.
“Gluck is a weird fascination,” Rose says. “It’s the same reason that I have for liking other composers outside the repertoire. These transition works—it’s the communication in them that is so direct.”
“Paride ed Elena” begins the second half of Odyssey Opera’s season, which examines the mythological Paris and Helen relationship, as told three different ways: in “Paride ed Elena,” in Richard Strauss’s “Die ägyptische Helena” (to be staged in April), and in Jacques Offenbach’s “La belle Hélène” (staged this coming June).
Another fascination for Rose and the OO team—which includes Mireille Asselin singing the role of Helen, soprano Meghan Lindsay in a trouser role singing Paris, and soprano Erica Schuller as Cupid—is that all the parts are sung by female sopranos.
“The Paris character was originally a castrati,” Rose says, “but soprano does very nicely. And it’s great to have women in the all major parts. I love pants roles—it lends an ambiguity to the sexual interaction. A good director—and we have a great one—can subtly utilize that.” Crystal Manich, with broad international credits creating unusual stagings, directs.
The myth of Paris and Helen gets summed up in one threadbare phrase: “The face that launched a thousand ships.” When the married Helen follows the affections of Paris—who has judged her the most beautiful of women, angering the goddesses—the repercussions lead to the Trojan War. “Paride ed Elena” details the beginning of that story—the judgment of Paris.
It took a bit for Asselin to warm to the role of Helen—she wasn’t familiar with the work either. “When I was approached about it I said, ‘Well, let me take a look at the score.’ I had never heard of it. The more I looked, I realized this was a fantastic piece.” Once she was committed, the real work began.
“Singing an opera role is like running a marathon,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-off, or you get to do 12 performances. There’s an amazing amount of prep and study. The work is the same no matter how many shows you perform.”
When Asselin compares the role to a marathon, she wasn’t just buying into a convenient metaphor. “The second half of this opera is relentless. It’s the pace that’s challenging,” she says. “There’s a massive amount of recit. The key is knowing where I can save some energy, when I have a chorus thing and I can get a drink of water. It’s about being smart.”
It’s a love story, and the emotional turmoil that ensues would challenge any performer—singer or not. Asselin and the rest of the cast need to act out a shifting drama, but also sing beautifully. “You have to be able to rip your heart out onstage without losing your breath,” she says. “When we tighten up, we get that tense lump in your throat. That’s the last thing a singer needs. The acting is really important, because the average audience consumes so much TV and cinema. Opera needs to reach that level of storytelling.”
And in this case, tell the story in only two performances. Rather than bemoan the fact that so much work goes into such a short run, Rose focuses on the opera itself, and building a following.
“We’re a young company, with a progressive, niche agenda,” he says. “The level of audience growth is not as rapid as if we were doing standard rep.
“When I start building my second house, then I’ll add a third performance,” he jokes. “But our audiences are growing. It’s just hard to measure. With only one weekend of performances, if there’s bad weather, our data gets skewed. If you did seven or eight performances, you’d have a lot more data.
“I can’t pay much attention to that anyway,” he says. “We’re committed to what we’re doing—there is a reason, we’re not just here to perpetuate our existence.”
Odyssey Opera stages Gluck’s “Paride ed Elena” Feb. 15 and 17 in the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. For tickets ($25 and up) visit odysseyopera.org or call 617 826-1626.