PARIDE ED ELENA
Dramma per musica
Libretto: Ranieri de’ Calzabigi
First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 3 November 1770
Gluck, let’s face it, has a reputation. Noble, high-minded, austere, but also dull – as poised and as marmoreal as a Classical statue. “Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, / Dead perfection, no more” (as the poet says).
This reputation is, let it be said, misplaced. Gluck’s works are intense, subordinating music to drama (anticipating and earning the approval of Wagner), and with memorable tunes to boot. Nevertheless, his operas can be an acquired taste. Those who think opera is passionate melodrama in Italian, ending with a dead soprano, may be nonplussed by Gluck’s eighteenth century treatment of Greek legends.
In the wrong hands, even Orfeo ed Euridice, his most popular work, can seem as remote and antiquated (if not downright antediluvian) as Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607.
You don’t have to make any allowances, though, for Paride ed Elena, a work as lovely and as warmly alive as its heroine.
Paris, Prince of Troy, has come to Sparta to win Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. In most accounts, she’s the wife of Menelaus, Sparta’s king; here, she’s only betrothed to him. Aphrodite, goddess of love, promised Paris Helen’s love, as a reward for giving her the golden apple.
“Here we are dealing with a young lover, who stands in contrast with the strange humours of a proud and virtuous woman, and who, with all the art of ingenuous passion, ends by triumphing over her.” – Gluck
The opera opens on the Spartan coast, where Paris’s followers are making offerings to Venus, imploring her to prosper Paris’s venture.
Paris enters, and describes his longing for Helen.
Eraste, Helen’s adviser, invites Paris to the palace. He knows why Paris has come, and Venus herself will help him. Of course he knows; Eraste is Cupid in disguise.
Paris and Helen’s first meeting, in the Spartan throne room. Love at first sight? Hardly; both are attracted, but Helen resists Paris’s flattery.
Paris starts to doubt his chances of winning Helen; only Venus’s promises still give him hope.
Paris and Helen watch the Spartan athletes perform gymnastics in the palace courtyard. (Presumably this isn’t an authentic historical recreation; the Viennese censor would have raised objections to a nude chorus.) Helen asks Paris to sing her a Trojan song, and Paris sings an early version of “Drink to me only with thine eyes”.
Helen realises that he’s serenading (and trying to seduce) her, and orders him to stop. Paris collapses, and Helen sends Eraste for help. As Paris recovers, Helen wonders whether she should stay with him or leave. Ernest Newman considered the following duet, which “opposes Helen’s sense of duty to the passion of Paris”, “the finest psychological expression in the whole opera”.
Paris persists in pestering the princess. This time it’s through a letter, urging her to elope with him. She writes a reproachful letter, which Eraste hands to Paris. He presses his case in a trio and duet…
…but Helen, about to yield, orders him to leave and forget her. Easy to say, replies Paris; has she looked at herself?
Alone, Helen is torn between love and duty, but resolves to be virtuous.
Eraste (who is, of course, Cupid in disguise) tells Helen that Paris has left. Distraught, she warns women not to trust men’s tears and sighs.
This is a trick to make her reveal her feelings, and it works. Paris appears, and Helen at last agrees to go with him to Troy. Not even Pallas Athene, descending from heaven, can make them change their minds; not even the doom of Troy.
Helen of Troy, legend says, was the most beautiful woman in the world – and Gluck’s opera is one of the most beautiful I know.
But it didn’t capture the heart of Paris. Paris, in fact, never knew this Helen. It was performed in Vienna; the Viennese were, apparently, nonplussed; and, unlike Alceste or Orfeo, it was never staged in nor retooled for France.
It’s hard to say why Gluck didn’t bring Helen to Paris. It lacks, as Gluck himself admitted, the dramatic power of other works – no fathers sacrificing their children or wives dying to save their husbands – but for sheer musical pleasure, it stands in a class of its own among his works.
“It does not provide the composer,” Gluck wrote in the score’s dedication, “with those strong passions, those great images, those tragic situations which, in Alceste, move the spectators so deeply, and give such great opportunities for artistic effect. So that in this music one must not expect to find the same force and energy; just as, in a picture representing a subject in full light, one would not expect the same effects of chiaroscuro, the same contrasts, as in a picture painted in half-light…”
The score is warm and expressive, full of 18th century grace. The story is simple; it moves in a straight line, without any complications, yet holds the attention throughout. Paris pursues, Helen resists, until she yields to his love at the end – but that love, we are told by Pallas (not so much the wise Athene, grey-eyed counsellor of gods and heroes, as the jealous goddess who destroyed Arachne), will lead to war.
The score clearly influenced Mozart (and can be compared to his operas without doing either a disservice). The chorus “Vieni al mar” anticipates “Scenda amor” in Idomeneo, while the orchestral opening to the last scene sounds a lot like “Soave al vento”! Likewise, one can hear Rossini’s opera seria in Paris’ lyrical wooing of Helen in Act III, where he melts her reserve by the pure beauty of the voice.
Anyone who hasn’t tried Gluck’s operas, or who is still unconvinced, will also be melted by Paride’s beauty, and fall in love with Elena and her creator.
Magdalena Kozená (Paride), Susan Gritton (Elena), Carolyn Sampson (Amore), and Gillian Webster (Pallide), with the Gabrieli Consort and Players, conducted by Paul McCreesh. Deutsche Grammophon 0289 477 5415 2.