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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Bryan Fairfax, cond; Ann Pashley (
); William McAlpine (
Hector de Florac
); Raimund Herincx (
); Bernard Dickerson (
); Forbes Robinson (
); Rae Woodland (
); Thomas Hemsley (
); Edmund Bohan (
); Ambrosian Singers; Polyphonia O
1480, mono (2 CDs: 123:28) Live: London 2/1972
in 1949, to a libretto by J. B. Priestly. The light-hearted theme of the work—gods or supernatural beings, down on their luck in later times, briefly interacting with mortals—had been a popular one in literary circles through the early 20th century. Priestly’s plot is less overtly political than that of Anatole France in his
The Revolt of Angels
, less rowdily farcical than Thorne Smith’s
The Night Life of the Gods
. A small group of the Roman gods, led by Jupiter, are reduced to act as a motley bunch of minstrels, except for a few hours on Midsummer Eve when they are empowered once again. They arrive on that date in 1836 at an inn in the south of France, where the alewife, Madeleine, falls in love with a traveling poet, Hector de Florac. However, debts owed to Joseph Lavatte, a mercenary lender, have forced her into a nuptial arrangement with an elderly minor noble. The gods get their night, wowing and frightening the guests with war songs, lightning bolts, and corybantic dances, until finally Lavatte pays a local Curé heavily to “banish” the deities. The money is quickly provided to Madeleine, who is now free to pursue her tryst with Hector, and the gods continue on their ramshackle way.
The characters and dialogue are well handled, even if Priestly goes a bit stereotypical in his depiction of Lavatte, a materialistic “man of commerce” type that the writer repeatedly poked fun at throughout his career. Bliss in turn provides an excellent example of his later manner, with a persuasively Romantic style that avoids condescension and integrates vocal numbers into a thorough-composed framework. Verdi was probably at the back of the composer’s mind in devising the
tissue that functions between arias and concerted pieces—in itself interesting, with a significant level of musical discourse in the orchestra. There is much energy throughout (most notably in Lavatte’s deliberately coarse but brisk act I piece), with many instrumental solos; the satirical march in the winds that accompany the Curé as he tells Lavatte how he will remove the evil that has infected the inn provides an excellent example. If there are no big hit tunes to take home, yet there is more than enough wit and melody to leave the impression of a fun night in the theater.
This 1972 production was the only professional one
had following its muted premiere. It was a success, and there’s a palpable sense of spirit about the whole thing. The best performance comes from Forbes Robinson’s dark, beautifully characterized and enunciated bass. No one else rises to that level, though Bernard Dickerson in act III comes close, with his wily persona reflected by a deftly shaded lyric tenor. The worst is the underwhelming Jupiter of Thomas Hemsley, who presumably was having a bad night; I’ve heard him sound much more authoritative than the dry, breathless figure he presents here. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, though the orchestra sounds woefully under-rehearsed. Bryan Fairfax does his best to keep them together, but the results leave something to be desired.
This recording of the event has been circulating informally in opera circles for more than a decade. It has also been through several CD incarnations. None to my knowledge has provided a libretto; at least Opera d’Oro offers a brief synopsis. The sound is poorly equalized, with the midrange much too low, but this can be modestly improved with decent audio equipment. It was recorded in mono rather than stereo, despite the late date, but both singers and orchestras are well miked. There is little extraneous noise.
Clearly, this is playing to a narrow audience, though I suspect
would fare very well on a good, modern studio recording. In any case, if you admire the works of Bliss, you’ll almost certainly want this.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
The Olympians, F 97 by Sir Arthur Bliss
Shirley Minty (Mezzo Soprano),
Thomas Hemsley (Bass),
Raimund Herincx (Bass),
Edmund Bohan (Tenor),
Forbes Robinson (Bass),
Anne Pashley (Soprano),
William MacAlpine (Countertenor),
Bernard Dickerson (Tenor),
Rae Woodland (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1948-1949; London, England
Date of Recording: 02/1972
Venue: Live Royal Festival Hall, London
Length: 118 Minutes 11 Secs.
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Less than Olympian, but still worthwhile April 20, 2015
By Kenneth P. (Marblehead, MA) See All My Reviews
"Bliss's opera "The Olympians" received a less than lustrous premiere at Covent Garden in 1949, but this recording will be seen as welcome by those familiar with Bliss's music, both orchestral and choral. It features some fine performances by Thomas Helmsley, Rainmund Herincx and Forbes Robinson, and the orchestra and chorus were well prepared by Bryan Fairfax. The libretto by J.B. Priestley tells the story of a group of Olympians, led by Jupiter, who come to earth every 100 years, and take on the guise of traveling players (Priestley's "Good Companions" comes to mind). The music is a sheer delight, and, of course, inventive and well-crafted. I heard in this opera many passages of music and libretto that seem to foreshadow Tippett's "Midsummer Marriage." However...this particular recording (and I assume, the performance at which it was recorded) has been so extensively cut that it seems like 20 to 25% of the opera is missing. All the optional cuts (in the Novello score) have been taken, and there has been extensive cutting at the starts of Acts 1 and 2. Act 3's cuts began after the introduction, but then continue throughout the Act. Still, taken as a whole, this is an opera worth hearing."