For the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Jean Cocteau, the Opéra-Comique offered several rather obvious Human Voice choices, not including the more original operas that the poet has inspired. After a long wait, in spring 2014 Parisians will be able to have Oedipus Rex in concert, and Athénée are proposing Milhaud’s ‘The Poor Sailor’ – but, incomprehensibly, no sign of Poulenc’s ‘Gendarme’. Meanwhile, in January the Saint-Etienne Opera Theatre will welcome Philip Glass in person to direct his soundtrack for ‘Beauty and the Beast. An alternative is to create a new work around the personality of the poet – this is what happened, a year ahead of the anniversary commemorations, at the 2012 Canterbury Festival which saw the premiere of the new one-act opera by British composer Ed Hughes ‘ When the Flame Dies’.
This new album includes an audio CD of the work, accompanied by a DVD filmed at the premiere of the opera in concert version with video projections. I feel that the DVD does not add much, the projections are hardly more than a figleaf – better to focus on listening to the music alone and wait to experience this is a full stage version.
[nb = when I first auditioned the recording, I found exactly the opposite – the soloists are so attuned to their characters that even in concert, they and the projected backdrops do add style and atmosphere. Stephen Sutton, Metier Records]
As with Philip Glass, Ed Hughes is drawn to the cinema. He has composed music for masterpieces of silent cinema (Eisensteins’ Strike and Battleship Potemkin and Ozu’s Woman of Tokyo ). Born in Bristol in 1968, his first opera was The Birds, based on the famous play of Aristophanes that also inspired Walter Braunfels. The libretto of When the Flame Dies is by Roger Morris, best known as a writer of crime fiction, one of whose novels inspired Hughes’ first essay in vocal music, the twenty-minute piece The Devil’s Drum.
Although the main character is simply called ‘The Poet’, it is Cocteau’ the action takes place in 1923 when Raymond Radiquet had just died from typhoid, his lover’s mourning resulting in Orphée in 1926. In the new opera, Death comes to the Poet and suggests that they can be re-united if the Poet commits suicide. The Poet hesitating, Death lights a candle and tells the poet that before the flame dies, the Poet must choose between love/death and art/life. Orpheus and Eurydice appear to give advice and finally Raymond himself – at the last moment, the Poet chooses life – to devote himself to his art.
More than the vocal writing which can be at times uninspiring, it is the exciting orchestral treatment which wins through in this short chamber opera, with the shimmering timbres of the twelve instrumentalists of New Music Players, often bolstered by electronics. The two main characters, baritone and mezzo playing Poet and Death, present their lines at a steady pace with lyrical effusions in some monologues which are glassy and enamelled in tone. Edward Grint, recently seen at the Musée d’Orsay in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience , proves very comfortable in the main role, while Lucy Williams [as Princess Death] leads the game with authority. As a definitely British-inspired Orpheus, Julian Podger is tested and makes some unpleasant sounds. As the role of Eurydice is limited to a few lines echoing the remarks of her husband, it is difficult to well judge the qualities of Emily Philips. Andrew Radley, as Raymond Radiquet, gives a good performance and is rewarded with a long soliloquy near the end of the work.