‘A Life in Opera Programmes’ 4: The Olympians, Royal Opera House, 1949

Royal Opera House: The Olympians 1949 - cover

Royal Opera House: The Olympians 1949 – covers of programmes were plainer then

Well, an interesting bit of digging around this subject. Naïvely, I had assumed that Arthur Bliss’s opera, to a libretto by JB Priestley, had been produced to chime with the 1948 London Olympic Games. In a rare fit of Olympic spirit, I thought a little piece on the work, inspired by the programme in Ken’s collection, would be of interest.

Firstly, looking through various editions of Kobbé, I couldn’t find mention of it at all. The New Penguin Opera Guide devotes a paragraph, mostly appreciative, to it. Doubtless it’s in Grove, but I don’t have a copy. The most extensive source at my disposal is therefore the Wikipedia entry on both The Olympians and Arthur Bliss himself. None of them mention the Olympic Games, so one assumes that there is no connection. The opening night was on 29 September 1949, so the fact that it premiered over a year after the 1948 Games had concluded  ought, I suppose, to have been a clue.  Anyway, to persevere…

Ken saw the performance on 7 October 1949, one of ten that made up the initial run, which constituted the season opener for 1949/50. Karl Rankl, then Music Director, conducted and the production was by Peter Brook. It seems that they were not on speaking terms, and part of the difficulties of the opening night has been attributed to their lack of communication, other than by passing notes to each other. JB Priestley had remarked that to say it was under-rehearsed was one of the “understatements of the last half-century”.

The story has little to do with the Olympic Games, in either ancient or modern forms. Rather, it concerns the gods of Mount Olympus who lose their godly powers when everyone stops believing in them, and roam the world as a group of itinerant players, rocking up in a town in the south of France one day in 1836, which just happens to be one of the occasional days when they get their powers back temporarily. General disruption to the lives of the locals ensues, until they are banished by the local priest.  Amongst the première cast was Murray Dickie, creating the role of The Curé, described in the programme as ‘An Elderly Priest’, making it an odd choice for a 25-year old who had made his debut at the Cambridge Theatre, London, only two years’ previously. Edith Coates played Madame Bardeau, “Landlady of the Golden Duck”. Perennial Covent Garden favourite of the time, Irish tenor James Johnston, was to have created Hector de Florac, but Ken’s scribble records the late change of cast to Rudolf Schock. Other notables are as recorded in the cast list, below.

Royal Opera House: The Olympians - 1949 cast

Royal Opera House: The Olympians – 1949 cast

Lewis Foreman, in the New Penguin Guide, describes Preistley’s libretto as ‘distinguished and thoughtful’, and Ernest Newman hailed Priestley as an English Boito (which seems a bit rash on the basis of a single collaboration, but ‘hoorah!’ for big gestures).  Edward Dent similarly lauded Bliss’s orchestration, as ‘masterful’. Aside from the lack of rehearsal, and an accusation levelled at Rankl that he hadn’t properly learnt the music, a contemporary critical account seems to have suggested it lacked “a soaring tune for the human voice”, though who knows what they would have made of some contemporary opera nowadays. The synopsis in the programme strikes me as a mildly rambling affair, but then so do those of so many operas. Foreman concludes by citing the 1985 Edinburgh Festival revival as “a triumphant reassertion of Bliss’s grasp of the stage and of the virile quality of his invention.”  That performance and a recorded concert from the Royal Festival Hall in 1972 were the only ones to follow the initial Covent Garden run, with the exception of the Company’s outing to Manchester that followed just afterwards. Barry Brenesal, reviewing the CD issue for Fanfare, observed that it exhibits “a persuasively Romantic style that avoids condescension and integrates vocal numbers into a thorough-composed framework”. He indicates that a further, modern recording of the work would be a worthwhile endeavour and, indeed, listening to the excerpts on the Amazon website it comes across as a warm, spirited work that I can fully anticipate getting under your skin.

Maybe a revival would have been a fitting contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, which is otherwise a distinctly patchy affair, notwithstanding the run of mighty performances (TroyensOtello, next season’s Ring) that Covent Garden have loosely associated with ‘Games-time’. Then again, given the lack of connection between the story and the concept of the Olympic Games, not to mention IOC/LOCOG’s obsession with controlling associations with the ‘brand’, it might not have come off, or might have found itself banned?

ROH Olympians 1949 Programme - Advert for Roses Lime Cordial

ROH Olympians 1949 Programme – Bizarre Advert for Rose’s Lime Cordial

The CD is available from Arkivmusic and Amazon, where, at the time of writing, it’s over twice the price but you can listen to snippets if you’re tempted. If not, lose yourself in the most utterly bizarre advertisement for Rose’s lime cordial, right, as found on page 2 of the programme.


Wikipedia: Arthur Bliss
Wikipedia: The Olympians (opera)
Holden, A ed. (2001) The New Penguin Guide to Opera, London: Penguin


  1. The Olympians was produced by The Chelsea Opera Group in 1991. The only recording is disfigured by a number of cuts. Several years ago I approached Chandos Records about making a new recording but they would need a substantial sponsorship to do so. As the Information Officer of The J B Priestley Society I am currently writing a monograph on the libretto for publication by The Society.

    Michael Nelson

    1. All sounds fascinating; thank you for taking time to mention it. I hope all goes well with the monograph.

  2. Thank you for this informative article. What a thrilling and curious work this is, lots of orchestral color and moments of lyrical enchantment. Just want to point out that, contrary to Barry Brenesal’s claim in the review linked above, the exciting 1972 live recording is not in mono but is most definitely in stereo.

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