This is an unusual release in a number of ways. Although packaged as a CD, it also comes with a DVD of a complete concert filming of the same performance of the one-act opera together with a brief film by Sheryl Jenkins. It is very helpful that the booklet gives us not only two extensive essays about the work – which stray over the border into reviews of the opera itself – but also the complete text. This reveals a couple of minor alterations in what we actually hear. I first listened to the work in audio only, and then viewed it on the DVD.
The opera is focused around the reaction of Jean Cocteau (described here simply as “The Poet”) to the early death of his young lover Raymond Radiguet and the block this placed on his inspiration for several years. It is treated – as Cocteau himself did in Orphée – as a parallel to the story of Orpheus and Euridice. In it the artist rejects the ideal of love which would restore his beloved to life in favour of the inspiration which his grief brings. At the beginning the Poet laments his loss and his consequent inability to work. He is interrupted by a Princess who first encourages and then foils his attempt at suicide and assists him to conjure up Orpheus. However he rejects the heroic figure as a “monstrous ego”. The Princess then invokes his lost love, with the promise that he can be reunited with him if he forgoes his future development as an artist. While he hesitates, the choice is taken on his behalf. He realises that the Princess is Death herself, who tells him in the final line “all you can do is work.” The result is a highly literate but very wordy libretto by Roger Morris. One’s initial reaction is one of surprise that Ed Hughes should contrive to despatch the whole plot in under one hour.
He does this by virtue of allowing us almost no space to breathe. There is no prelude of any description, the Poet’s opening words come immediately the music starts. Thereafter the dialogue proceeds at a generally breakneck pace. Even in the scenes with Orpheus, with their rhyming schemes and touches of humour – as in the Poet’s question, “That’s it? No rhyme?” and Orpheus’s ironic response “Not that time” – we are given no time to savour the individual moment. Indeed it is not until Orpheus is summoned (track 5) that we have any sustained singing at all. The effect is not aided by the hyperactive orchestral accompaniment. It’s very skilled but lacks any emotional underpinning and continues on its hectic way even during the momentary lyricism of the duet between Orpheus and Eurydice. There is a blessed moment of stillness with a rather beautiful clarinet solo at the beginning of the second interlude (track 10), but within a very short space of time we are whirled away into the obsessive action again.
The first interlude (track 6) is electronic. It sounds as though the electronics begin shortly before that as the Princess summons Orpheus and synthesised voices are added to the mix. This sounds like a wordless chorus with some echoes of Ligeti, but since no singers are credited I presume the effect is electronic. These sounds continue under a series of rather obvious electronic doodlings. These effects of mistuned radio stations go back fifty years to Stockhausen’s early experiments. The listener is left somewhat underwhelmed. The synthesised choir sounds hover briefly in the background, and presumably are undertaken ‘live’ since they clearly need to co-ordinate closely with the orchestral textures.
Quite suddenly, as the Princess turns to evoke the Poet’s dead love (track 11), the music suddenly acquires emotional breath. The confrontation between the Poet and Raymond achieves a depth of character that has previously been missing. As the Poet hesitates over the choices before him, the voices are joined by Orpheus and Eurydice in a passionate quintet. The mood is sustained to the end although the orchestral accompaniment remains fussily over-busy. One is left with the impression of a heartfelt work but one which takes rather too long to engage with the listener.
Watching the same performance however brings a rather different perspective, mainly because Edward Grint as the Poet and Lucy Williams as the Princess bring a sense of dramatic engagement to their conversational lines. This focuses the attention to a much greater extent than the music in isolation manages to achieve. This is quite definitely a concert performance, with the singers lined up behind music stands and no sign of an audience. The projections which are seen on screens behind the performers and overlaid on the filmed action have an evocative sense of atmosphere especially when viewed in conjunction with the subtitled dialogue. Julian Podger and Emily Phillips as Orpheus and Eurydice are less dramatically engaged. They simply sing their lines (very well) without interacting with the others on-stage. However, when Andrew Radley as Raymond finally appears, the looks that Grint flashes between the two competing demands on his attention are quite gripping. This has a genuine sense of tension. In fact the video element adds a whole new dimension to the work, rescuing what might seem worthy rather than inspiring. It is turned into something which engages not only the viewer’s intellect but sympathy and compassion as well.
Carlos del Cueto gets superlatively assured playing from the small chamber orchestra. On the DVD it is quite noticeable that his conducting only seems to move from the technically precise to emotional involvement at the beginning of track 11. This is just as the moment of decision nears. The extra track on the DVD is a film about a woman stalked by an obsessive would-be murderer. The piece is itself well conceived but the visual element and the use of a similarly busy score by Ed Hughes don’t really seem to add much to the words themselves. The same might be said – although with less justification – of the opera itself. The visual element provides a background to the plot disclosed on a series of cards. The score is a movement from Hughes’ Chamber Concerto 1.
There are however some real plus points in the main work. The vocal lines may retain a conversational pitch for too long, but they sound comfortable on the voice and are clearly set. There are one or two points where phrases are repeated for no very obvious reason, but the plot drives along towards it emotional conclusion with a proper sense of its destination.
It would be hard to imagine the performance being bettered, with the young cast clearly involved in what they are being asked to do. The recording is well balanced, with the voices coming through clearly even when the orchestration is at its most complex. I certainly didn’t have any objection to sitting through the work twice, once on CD and once on DVD. Indeed I found myself finding things in the score on second hearing that I had missed first time round. That is surely a sign of a piece that has real depth.