Stephen Oliver Prize Cochrane Theatre, London
When the composer Stephen Oliver died in 1992, he left most of his estate to promote young composers and new opera. Among the products of that bequest is the Stephen Oliver Prize, given to the composer judged to make the best of a given libretto, and on Monday, the winners from 1994 (Travellers by David Horne, text by AN Wilson) and 1996 (The Bridge by Tim Benjamin, text by David Edgar) were staged for the BOC Covent Garden Festival.

It's debatable whether competitions and set texts are the best route to new opera, but then none of the other methods seems terribly successful either. As ever, the results are the proof, and Monday's show suggested that there's plenty still to learn. Both librettos suffered from excess verbiage, too much thought and emotion for music to communicate. Pushed into a corner, the composers resorted to contemporary opera-speak, the vocal lines neither screamingly modernist nor ingratiatingly tuneful, leaving only added volume or accelerated tempo to carry the expressive weight.

David Horne proved better able to cope, perhaps because AN Wilson's sardonically rhyming text offered greater scope: a Policeman switches from harassing a group of travellers to espousing the communal cause, only for all of them to be scuppered when the Farmer on whose land they're camped reclaims his ancient birthright. Meanwhile a scruffy Dog looks on. Here at least were encounters, New Age rituals to enact, even a little mystery and romance.

Horne marshalled his eight-piece instrumental ensemble with some subtlety, from the shuddering marimba that opened the drama to the menacing walking- bass that accompanied the Farmer. The baying melismas of the Dog (Mark Oldfield) broke through modern operatic decorum, while the Policeman, the most ambiguous character, had some ardently lyrical lines, which Ivan Sharpe, a promising tenor, grabbed eagerly. Meanwhile, the New Agers' a cappella Ritual Dance, "We came because we came", had real energy. Here were people to care about, even if you suspected that AN Wilson didn't.

There was rather less to stir us in Benjamin's The Bridge. The domestic setting provided by Edgar's text was already stifling, and the tale of international peace negotiations put on track by a child's innocence was too glib. Benjamin seemed wary of pitting his singers against each other; each simply sang in turn, generating no sense of ensemble or confrontation: the sing-song cadences negated such possibilities. Benjamin opted to amplify the voices, but rather than increasing the potential vocal range, the speakers simply emphasised the lack of variety. Here and there some slinky syncopations suggested music trying to break free, but in the end the text imprisoned the composer.

Tom Smith's naturalistic direction was probably too respectful of both pieces, but the storytelling was at least clear. Paul McGrath conducted unfussily, and the players (from Trinity College of Music) and singers gave unflinching commitment. Yet this was an evening in the New Opera ghetto, where like speaks to like of nothing very earth-shattering. Small- scale work doesn't have to mean small-scale achievements.

Nick Kimberley

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