13 Jan 2008

GLUCK: Paride ed Elena

Paride ed Elena: Dramma per musica in five acts.

Music composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Libretto by Ranieri de’Calzabigi.

First Performance: 3 November 1770, Burgtheater, Vienna

Principal Characters:
Paris, son of King Priam of Troy soprano castrato
Helen, Queen of Sparta soprano
Amore [Cupid], under the name of Erasto, Helen’s confidant soprano
Pallas Athene (Minerva), goddess, daughter of Jupiter soprano
A Trojan soprano

Setting: Sparta before the Trojan War.


The last of Gluck’s so-called reform operas, Paride ed Elena encompasses the events between The Judgment of Paris and the flight of Paris and Helen to Troy.

According to the Cyprea:

Zeus plans with Themis to bring about the Trojan war. Strife arrives while the gods are feasting at the marriage of Peleus and starts a dispute between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite as to which of them is fairest. The three are led by Hermes at the command of Zeus to Alexandrus [Paris] on Mount Ida for his decision, and Alexandrus, lured by his promised marriage with Helen, decides in favour of Aphrodite.

Paris deserts the nymph Oenone and proceeds to Sparta to claim Helen, the wife of Menelaus. Following the Greek custom to “[h]ave Respect for one in need of house and hospitality,” Menelaus welcomes Paris as his guest. Paris thereupon seduces Helen. Initially outraged, Helen ultimately takes flight with Paris to Troy.

The abduction of Helen leads to the Trojan War immortalized in Homer’s Iliad. Ironically, Paris dies from battle wounds that Oenone refuses to cure. Helen, on the other hand, returns to Sparta where Menelaus restores her as his queen. Although condemned by the tragedians, others found Helen praiseworthy. Indeed, the great rhetorician, Isocrates, went so far as to argue:

Apart from the arts and philosophic studies and all the other benefits which one might attribute to her and to the Trojan War, we should be justified in considering that it is owing to Helen that we are not the slaves of the barbarians. For we shall find that it was because of her that the Greeks became united in harmonious accord and organized a common expedition against the barbarians, and that it was then for the first time that Europe set up a trophy of victory over Asia; and in consequence, we experienced a change so great that, although in former times any barbarians who were in misfortune presumed to be rulers over the Greek cities (for example, Danaus, an exile from Egypt, occupied Argos, Cadmus of Sidon became king of Thebes, the Carians colonized the islands, and Pelops, son of Tantalus, became master of all the Peloponnese), yet after that war our race expanded so greatly that it took from the barbarians great cities and much territory. If, therefore, any orators wish to dilate upon these matters and dwell upon them, they will not be at a loss for material apart from what I have said, wherewith to praise Helen; on the contrary, they will discover many new arguments that relate to her.


Paris, having chosen Venus above Juno and Minerva, is in Sparta, sacrificing to Venus and seeking, now with the encouragement of Erasto, the love of Helen. Paris and Helen meet at her royal palace and each is struck by the other's beauty. She calls on him to judge an athletic contest and when asked to sing he does so in praise of her beauty, admitting the purpose of his visit is to win her love. She dismisses him. In despair Paris now pleads with her, and she begins to give way. Eventually, through the intervention of Erasto, who now reveals himself as Cupid, she gives way, but Pallas Athene (Minerva) now warns them of sorrow to come. In the final scene Paris and Helen make ready to embark for Troy.

[Synopsis source: Naxos]