Paride ed Elena: birthday celebrations for Gluck & Essential Opera

Ambition is a good thing, especially from an opera company.  There will always be Bohemes and Carmens galore, but I especially love having the opportunity to see something new, as I did tonight in my encounter with Gluck’s Paride ed Elena, via Essential Opera.  While EO are celebrating their fifth year, Gluck is having his 300th birthday commemorated all over the world.  For example Opera Atelier will present the familiar Orpheus and Euridice (although off the beaten track via Berlioz’s orchestration): but tonight’s show is much rarer.  According to operabase.com –a website recording the activities of the major companies of the world—Paride ed Elena wasn’t presented even once in either of the years they count performances.

And so to EO I say a huge thank you.

I couldn’t help wondering why this work isn’t done more often, why it hasn’t caught on.  Is it because the roles are all female, and even Paris is played by a woman?  Or because there’s not really much to the story (given that there aren’t subplots to flesh out the opera, just the main storyline)?

I can’t help wondering, too, whether one of the big stumbling blocks for most companies –that it includes several dance numbers, identified in the score as “ballo” or “balleto”—is a reason why Opera Atelier might give it a closer look.  Tonight’s EO production did not include any of the dances, and almost all choruses were cut with the single exception of the coro d’atleti (chorus of athletes I suppose?) sung by a trio of singers.  It’s an opera that surely leans upon its divertissements, moments when the tension is lessened in the interest of spectacle.   While grand opera is not out of fashion, that’s when we’re speaking of spectaculars such as Les Troyens or Aida.  An unknown opera full of spectacle might be an entirely other matter for those deciding what to program.

I wish someone would stage it fully, as it’s a charming work full of subtleties and a great deal of character.  It plays like a comedy, especially in the person of Amore, the all-powerful and all-confident God of love.    In tonight’s semi-staged performance by EO, Maureen Batt was especially convincing as the playful god.  I was surprised her performance didn’t elicit more laughter from a polite audience at Trinity St Paul’s Centre, but then again it’s ironic rather than blatant comedy.

Krisztina Szabó’s reading of Paride was startling, considering that she was a late replacement for an indisposed artist (not the first time this week that I encountered singers cancelling due to illness).  Szabó is known for undertaking new music, with such companies as Tapestry or Queen of Puddings, and seems to be the go-to person for the Canadian Opera Company when they have newer music, such as her work in Saariaho’s Love from Afar in 2012 or her appearance in Lepage’s Erwartung coming next May.  I didn’t expect that she’d offer the most idiomatic singing –some adventurous da capo elaborations, fabulous clarity—all while judiciously holding her big voice back for most of the night, wonderfully well balanced with the rest of the singers onstage with her.  A friend told me that in fact Szabó had sung it before–almost a decade ago– but that doesn’t make her performance any less remarkable, a genuine display of virtuosity. She had a few glorious ensemble moments as well, singing with Batt and Erin Bardua as Elena, stunning music that shouldn’t be such a rarity.  Julie Ludwig & Emily Klassen were also splendid, accompanied by Wesley Shen on piano.

Essential Opera repeat Paride ed Elena at the Registry Theatre in Kitchener on October 1st at 7:30 pm.

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