The ever-intrepid Odyssey Opera has set sail on its spring voyage, presenting three Boston premieres of works featuring Helen of Troy. The first of these, Gluck’s “Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen),” veered off the company’s usual course by a few degrees. Composed at the confluence of the Baroque and Classical periods, it’s one of the oldest works the company has done and it’s been performed only a handful of times since the 18th century. This foray into less-charted waters was a success. The plot may be from antiquity and the music nearly 250 years old, but the characters’ emotional journey resonated for the modern audience Friday evening at the Huntington Avenue Theatre.
The piece itself has solid bones and many wonderful songs, but like so many of Odyssey’s deep cuts, it takes significant effort to bring to life and can sag in parts if the cast isn’t fully engaged. The splendid trifecta of sopranos in the leading roles made sure that didn’t happen.
As regulars with Canadian boutique Baroque house Opera Atelier, Meghan Lindsay and Mireille Asselin have shared many stages before, and their youthful Paride and Elena circled each other like two lions. Unlike in the Greek myths, Elena is neither married nor a mother here. However, her engagement has already been arranged, and sense of duty compels her to shut out her burgeoning feelings for Paride, implied to be the first real love she has experienced. Even viewed through the lens of the breeches role, the same homoerotic currents that electrify a good “Rosenkavalier” surged through the two’s soaring voices entwined.
Asselin’s Elena was a politically astute princess whose armor fell away over the course of the evening, and her vocal instrument was clarion. Her first scene, in which she smoothly deflects Paride’s advances, ended with a high run that could have launched a hundred ships by itself. As Paride, Lindsay was wan and lovesick when she first appeared, and at last erupted into full flower during the climactic scene of the first half, a starmaking paean to Elena and Amore (Cupid). Flattery will get you everywhere with a god, and Erica Schuller’s Amore lapped up Paride’s praise; humans are a bit more complicated.
For Schuller’s part, she sang with warm charm, and the adorable impishness of her scenery-chewing Amore compensated for a few high notes that got away from her. Soprano Dana Lynne Varga stormed through her 11th-hour appearance as Athene, foretelling the dire consequences of Paride and Elena’s elopement.
Conducted by artistic director Gil Rose, the small, agile orchestra sounded a little uncertain in parts, but avoided getting bogged down in the piece’s ample recitatives. It was a wise move to stage this instead of presenting it in concert. Lindsay Fuori’s mutable sets, Russell Champa’s lighting, and Brooke Stanton’s costumes colored the stage, while Boston Early Music Festival dance director Melinda Sullivan lent her choreography to a troupe of eight dancers. Like many operas of the time, dance scenes are baked in, and they fall where most modern audiences wouldn’t want a break in the action. These sequences weren’t strictly historically informed, but in a keen syncretic style with distinct elements of Baroque forms and plenty of room for modern expressions — just like much else about the whole thing.
PARIDE ED ELENA
Presented by Odyssey Opera. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Feb. 15. Repeats Feb. 17, 2 p.m. 617-826-1626 www.odysseyopera.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.