Monday 30 September 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: The Fire Of Olympus - The RNCM, Manchester.

“The Fire of Olympus" or "On Sticking It To The Man” is Radius Opera’s newest production, which this evening toured to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Musically it worked very well – but the theatre part of the opera didn’t quite match up to it.

Composed by Radius Opera’s Artistic Director Tim Benjamin, with libretto by both Benjamin and Anthony Peter, the story is a modern-day mash-up of both the Prometheus and Pandora myths that is heavily influenced by today’s world politics, and set to a pseudo-Handel score. The choice of Handel as the musical inspiration was initially an odd one – today’s world politics seem more suited to the crashing chords of Beethoven than the silvery shimmer of harpsichords – but my ear tuned in, and once I was used to it, there was a cool targeted understatement in the score that music director Ellie Slorach utilised fully to realise the inherent shades of the subject matter. A very nice touch was recording choirs and choral societies to create a digital “chorus of a thousand voices” as the voice of the Plebeians, and fourteen groups from around the north of England had contributed.

So if it had stayed as an oratorio, it would have been a successful event. But it was presented as an opera. And this is where it began to diminish. I note that the stage direction was also done by Tim Benjamin, and really an outside theatrical eye was needed on this work.

The force driving the storyline is the personality of Zeus, here presented as the President of a dystopian country called Olympus, who regularly addressed the audience as “My fellow Olympians…..” The set was a monochromatic space with cold white banners and podiums everywhere, decorated in a single black footless-Omega symbol: – the air was of a futuristic Nazi Germany. Zeus, sung by Robert Glyndwr Garland, in casual contrast strolled around in a luxurious gold dressing gown. According to the programme: “Zeus is a horrid, overbearing, manipulative man-child”, and Garland….. just wasn’t. He performed in a rich warm baritone that was pleasurable to the ear, but there was not a horrid, overbearing, manipulative bone in his body. However hard the rest of the cast worked, this big performance hole could not be filled.

Hephaestus, puzzlingly for a story where fire is a central motif, had his mythological status as a fire god who used volcanoes as his forge stripped away, and was here presented as a slimy little weasel in a military black coat and a limp. (Minister for Munitions?) Having said that, Michael Vincent Jones was a very good slimy little weasel, and particularly in the prison scenes his tenor voice took on an Iago (Shakespeare version)-like intensity and sinisterness.

Charlotte Hoather shone as Pandora, here presented as the Presidential Aide who resigns and joins Epimetheus’ gang of rebels. Her clear soprano was especially suited to the nature of the score, and her dramatic performance was strong yet subtle. The Pandora myth wasn’t really utilised though, which considering the subject, seemed a very wasted opportunity. There was a bottle, which she and Epimetheus drank from to confirm they were now lovers and then…. It was just left on the stage. Where was the unleash of the world’s worries? Or any acknowledgement of that part of the story at all? Why even have Pandora, rather than the nymph from down the road?

Joanna Harries and Elspeth Marrow did very well as Prometheus and Epimetheus, the two young activist brothers rebelling against the regime. Joanna Harries’ mezzo soprano and performance as Prometheus was quietly subtle and deeply sincere: – it was completely believed that Zeus had killed the brothers’ parents. Elspeth Marrow’s mezzo soprano and performance as Epimetheus was bright and warm and edged with mischief. They had the plotline of stealing “the Fire of Zeus”, the source of all his power, which was presented as a black hollowed-out bowling ball. When it was tipped upside down during the opera’s climax, it poured a handful of orange beads onto the floor…… a very underwhelming effect, considering the enormity of the stolen fire in the original Prometheus myth, and the structural place of the scene in the opera.

There are a lot of good things about “The Fire of Olympus”, but this current production does not fully realise its potential.

Reviewer - Thalia Terpsichore
on - 28/9/19

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