International Record Review

Following on from ‘Dark Formations’, the wide-ranging conspectus of his ensemble and instrumental music (reviewed in January 2013), Metier continues its coverage of Ed Hughes with his chamber opera When the Flame Dies. Originally a project for the now seemingly defunct Opera Genesis programme at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury studio, this was subsequently presented at the 2012 Canterbury Festival in association with Sounds New (whose tireless promotion of new music and younger composers is well worth reiterating) and can rank among the more successful such works to have come and gone with some frequency at a time when the quantity of new operas has hardly been marked by their quality.

The present piece has its basis in the life and work of Jean Cocteau – specifically the tragically young death of his muse (and probably lover) Raymond Radiguet, whose passing was both commemorated and transcended in the play Orphee – as well as more indirectly several plays and films. From this, Roger Morris has derived a libretto that, written mainly in rhyming couplets, has its moments of over-literal and prosaic albeit without succumbing to the inhibitions that have shackled comparable texts from the recent past. It certainly makes for a plausible means of relating such a fanciful though by no means contrived narrative, one whose basic premise of art triumphing over life has long been a potent operatic source.

While not overwritten as such, Morris’s libretto is extensive and often intricate in content, thereby placing a premium on the composer’s ability to convey dramatic meaning at the same time as sustaining a convincing theatrical continuity. This Hughes achieves admirably for the most part, whether in terms of maintaining a satisfactory balance between voices and instruments or of enriching the vocal lines with writing which sustains an intrinsic musical interest. Only occasionally is there a blurring of means or confusion of intent, while the composer’s constant resourcefulness is evident from the two interludes that are inserted roughly a third and two-thirds of the way through the score: the first of these solely for electronics (whose presence is discreetly pervasive across the work as a whole), and the second a brief though limpid passage for ensemble that points up the sensitivity of Hughes’s scoring. As with the music on that previous release, his idiom is broadly that of a post-war modernism which is personal enough to resonate with the listener.

The cast here is a persuasive one – dominated by Edward Grint’s emotive and increasingly self-regarding Poet, and the sensuous yet calculating appeal of Lucy Williams’s Princess. Julian Podger makes a vivid impression as Orpheus, whose unflinching honesty throws the Poet’s ostensible soul-searching into telling relief, while Emily Phillips is touching in the brief role of Eurydice. Andrew Radley seizes the moment in his climactic appearance as Raymond, the departed lover whose desired return is only fleetingly preordained. The dozen-strong New Music Players prove more than equal to their task, not least with Carlos del Cueto’s assured direction to guide it through the demands of Hughes’s score.

The present set comprises the same performance in both audio and visual incarnations. The sound for the former has an almost ideal balance between voices and ensemble so that the text is nearly always intelligible, while the latter is simply and unfussily rendered with minimal camerawork suitable for concert presentation – the provisos being that the ample ambience of Augustine Hall does rather affect the clarity of the sung component, and that the subtitles are far too small to be read at more than a few inches distance. The DVD does, however, include a brief though intriguing film by Sheryl Jenkins which draws on Hughes’s Chamber Concerto (featured on the previous Metier set) as the worthwhile bonus.

The booklet includes the libretto with a detailed synopsis as well as readable essays on the significance of Cocteau and the Orpheus myth. Hopefully Hughes’s piece will soon secure a full staging: in the meantime, this release enables one to get to grips with one of the more arresting and distinctive chamber operas to have emerged in the UK over recent years.

—Richard Whitehouse