“Paride et Elena” was the third operatic collaboration from
composer Christophe Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) and librettist
Ranieri de’ Calzabigi (1714-1795). Their first two joint efforts
were “Orfeo et Euridice” and “Alceste,” which premiered in
1762 and 1767, respectively. “Paride et Elena” was first
performed in 1770 in Vienna. As per the liner notes, all of
these works were considered to be the first examples of
Gluck’s “reform operas,” in the sense that the aim was to
“…set themselves (i.e., the composer and librettist)
apart from what they saw as the ruinous excesses of
opera seria. Gluck and Calzabigi viewed this form bedeviled
by singers whose only interest was vocal display, and
dramatic truth be damned.” Prior to “Orfeo et Euridice,”
Gluck wrote numerous opera seria, although none on a
full-scale after 1756.
Indeed, there is a sense of pared down Baroque
“excesses” in this “Paride,” as well as the other mature
Gluck operas, such as “Armide,” “Iphigénie en Tauride” and
“Iphigénie en Aulide.” These works also provide a fascinating
look at the transition between the Baroque and Classical eras.
When shorn of their embellishments and fioritura, the melodic
lines became more important and developed. In “Paride et Elena,”
the recitative passages were always accompanied by strings,
as opposed to the harpsichord and cello, which was the custom.
The dramatic elements were clearer, and Gluck’s operas were
much shorter than most opera seria.
Classicism was in evidence here, and the title role of Paris
(Paride) was the last time Gluck wrote music specifically for a
contralto. Like so many of Gluck’s operas, the story was taken
from Classical antiquity. The protagonist Paris arrived in Sparta
with his Trojan followers to win Helen (Elena). With some
help from Cupid (Amore), the lovers were united in the end.
This two-CD set appears to be exemplary in every way:
singing, instrumental performances, and sound engineering.
As a bonus, the final seven-minute scene was played with
the musical numbers arranged as originally published. In
the liner notes, conductor Paul McCreesh stated that this scene
was dramatically “diffuse.” Therefore, he rearranged it as he
felt “…it may have originally been conceived.”
I encourage anyone who wishes to hear this rarely performed
masterpiece by Gluck to check out this set, which has a running
time just shy of two and one-half hours. I can’t imagine it being
done any better than this.