Tim Benjamin’s Fire of Olympus

I enjoyed Tim Benjamin’s small-scale opera Madame X when I saw it five years ago. The mixture of musical styles worked reasonably well for the libretto, a thriller about corruption in the art world. His most recent work, The Fire of Olympus, given by Radius Opera at York’s Joseph Rowntree Theatre, was less successful. This too ranged across different musical idioms, but for very different subject-matter: a dark satirical piece about a power struggle among the Greek gods. And the shifting between Handel pastiche, rhythmic ballad-like lyricism and modern, chromatic pithy and astringent phrases defied a sense of overall musical purpose and structure, notwithstanding the attentive care of conductor Ellie Slorach and her group of instrumentalists.

Another problem lay in the wordy, excessively literary libretto, jointly written by the composer and Anthony Peter. This manifestly caused problems for the soloists who, with one or two exceptions, were unable to articulate it sufficiently clearly to make it readily comprehensible to the audience, thus inhibiting involvement in the characters and their predicaments. This was a pity because the cast of young performers worked very hard to communicate their emotions. Some of the singing, too, was impressive, particularly that of mezzo Elspeth Morrow and soprano Charlotte Hoather.

Clearly groups like Radius Opera have to work to a tight budget, having little recourse to public subsidy. This might help to explain the rudimentary, awkward decors – no designer is credited – and also the fact that the composer-librettist Tim Benjamin took charge of the production. With more studied movement and blocking, an experienced stage director might have come up with a sharper dramatic profile.

An interesting feature of the performance was the virtual presence of combined choruses from across the North of England, delivered through recordings made at workshops run by the group. The other-worldly sound did add an alluring additional dimension to the stage action and the involvement of local singers must have boosted box office sales.