Beware: this opera may take you hostage with its ability to get under your skin and its willingness to use any technological means to do so. Besides having a typical CD recording, a separate DVD of a live performance has both PAL and NTSC on opposite sides of the disc. Loosely based on Jean Cocteau’s history of heartache, opium addiction and impaired creativity, Hughes’s Poet’s protagonist is faced with a choice between creating great works of art or, like Orpheus (a significant character here), bringing his deceased love back from the dead. In the cold light of reality, this premise is a straw man – why does one preclude the other? – but, as with any good opera, this one convincingly creates its own logic.
Into the Poet’s grief-stricken world comes the mysterious Princess Death, who is bent on breaking through his Byronic postures with accusations that he secretly wished the death of his male partner Raymond. Roger Morris’s libretto gains much of its entrancing quality through the leeway of ambiguity plus provocative discussions about the moral implications of bringing people back to life.
Musically, Hughes’s compositional manner grabs from many of the same musical zones that Thomas Adès draws upon for his tough-to-categorise manner – freely veering between vague key centres and complete atonality. The 12-member Pierrot-ish ensemble reveals much effective compositional strategy, with motivic repetition, naggingly obsessive long-held notes in the winds and just plain alchemy. Purely electronic interludes are full of oblique commentary, though sometimes with gurgling effects and sci-fi glissandos that seem a bit dated. Most effective are live/electronic fusion effects in some of the more other-worldly passages.
The question is not if you like it but if you can tear yourself away from it. I was in the latter camp, especially in the video, despite cheesy computer graphics superimposed over the concert performance at hand. The singing is somewhat uneven: though the cast know their music thoroughly, the only voice I’d hunt down in the future is that of mezzo-soprano Lucy Williams. The short, inconsequential companion film titled The symptoms of his madness were as follows by Sheryl Jenkins tells a story separate from the opera, with lots of messy handwriting and music taken from Hughes’s Chamber Concerto. It can be skipped.