United Kingdom Gluck, Paris and Helen (Parida ed Elena): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera / Thomas Blunt (conductor). The Deanery Garden, Bampton, 23.7.2021 (CP)
Director/designer – Jeremy Gray
Choreographer – Alicia Frost
Lighting – Ian Chandler
Translation – Gilly French
Paris – Ella Taylor
Helen – Lucy Anderson
Amor – Lauren Lodge-Campbell
Pallas Athena – Lisa Howarth
Trojans – Lisa Howarth, Benjamin Durrant, Lucy Cronin, Alex Jones, Serenna Wagner
Dancers / Athletes – Oliver Adam-Reynolds, Oscar Fonesca
Yet again Bampton Classical Opera finds the opportunity to bring to life one of those long-overlooked gems of the opera genre. Isouard’s Cendrillon in 2018 was highly regarded, Storace’s Bride and Gloom followed in 2019 and was equally well reviewed. This year Jeremy Gray and Gilly French combine as Artistic Directors and translators to bring Gluck’s Paris and Helen to The Deanery Garden in Bampton for the ultimate garden opera on a balmy evening.
Unlike the frequently performed Tristan and Isolde, a story of a chivalric romance, the rarely performed, Paris and Helen, became the story which developed into a Greek legend. Premièred in 1770 in Vienna, this third of Gluck’s so-called ‘reform operas’ received only 25 performances. On the evidence of Bampton’s performance, it remains something of a mystery that Manchester in 1963, and the Barbican in 2003, remain the only two previous professional performances in this country. Well done Gray and French for their work on unearthing this gem and delivering a very capable translation into English!
Conductor Thomas Blunt is well regarded and has a strong following thanks to his work with Longborough Festival Opera; he worked his most irreproachably sympathetic magic with the soloists, generating excellent support from his team of nineteen. Tempos were strong and deliberate; there was never a sign of fatigue in their delivery. When the thunder clouds delivered the stern warning from Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, Blunt was given some external support from a noisy helicopter, arriving slightly late, which nevertheless added to the sense of how dire the consequences for Paris and Helen in their illicit lovemaking could be. Lisa Howarth, commanding in her role as Pallas Athena, takes her strong soprano voice into the Wagner world and sings Gutrune in Götterdämmerung; I’m sure this suits her well.
Simple sets, simple costumes and lighting allow choreographer, Alicia Frost to take full advantage of the space and lack of intrusive elements This gives the two dancers, Oliver Adam-Reynolds and Oscar Fonseca, licence to produce some thrilling, complicated gymnastics moves, a delightful surprise for an audience enjoying another most relaxed picnicking occasion. All four Trojans, supporters of Paris, sing confidently with Lisa Howarth, once again, and Benjamin Durrant (one of a chorus of four) showing the importance of clear diction added to thrilling energy and passion. Lauren Lodge-Campbell delights in her impish role as Amor, the god of love, and is equally comfortable in Amor’s disguised role as Erasto, Helen’s counsellor. She uses her incisive approach to support her love of crises in a very well-paced role developing her strategy to deceive Helen with an inexhaustible indulgence.
And so to the principal singers. Lucy Anderson, winner of the 2019 Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition, commands the stage as Helen, singing with eloquent grace. She varies her use of vibrato to heighten moments of tension. Her unease in her relationship with Paris is shown in her anguished observation, ‘how can I abandon him?’. She recognises her guilt in even considering breaking off her engagement to Menelaus, the future King of Sparta, who, conveniently, is away in Crete.
Ella Taylor, winner of Second Prize at the 2020 Kathleen Ferrier Awards, makes their stage debut with Bampton in the role of Paris, Prince of Troy frequently referred to as Alexandros ‘a protector of men, noted for his bravery as a shepherd’. Paris struggles to progress the courtship with Helen and by Act IV leaves the action in a huff shortly before the thunder clouds are joined by the tardy helicopter. Ella brings a raw energy to the work; the duets with Lucy some of the highlights of the evening and their voices are bright, again notably clear in diction and responsive to nuance.
Bampton Classical Opera deserves enormous praise for their efforts to revive, indeed, rediscover the hidden gems of the opera genre which remain unearthed. Further performances of this production can be seen at the Orangery Theatre, Westonbirt School, on 30 August and St John’s, Smith Square on 24 September – last chances not to be missed! In his pre-performance talk, Jeremy Gray recounted an anecdote in which an actress of some note described these hidden gems as ‘an exciting opportunity and an insight into a different world of escapism’. Bampton Classical Opera, however, has its feet firmly on the ground, noted for their sensible and practical approach to opera.
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