In considering the state of contemporary British opera, we’re now fortunate to have a DVD version of a new work by Ed Hughes, When the Flame Dies (2012). This is a different kind of operatic proposition. Concise (five singers, twelve instrumentalists, just shy of one hour long) and presented as a concert performance with video projections, it nevertheless manages to pack considerable punch. The libretto (by crime writer Roger Morris) takes the films of Jean Cocteau as a starting point. A poet (Cocteau himself?) receives a visit from an unearthly Princess, who brings a premonition of the works he has yet to write. Orpheus and Eurydice are summoned and the poet is offered a choice between love and art, with the reminder that ‘the mouth that kisses has no voice’.
This might suggest a slightly tired, archetypically mythic plot, but Hughes’s music fizzes with invention, deriving maximum colour from his small band. There is a Stravinskian sparkle and athleticism to the writing for harp, piano, vibraphone and brass, and a lushness inspired by Georges Auric’s film scores. The video backdrops reference Cocteau’s recurring imagery: the mirror, racing clocks and poppy petals descending with opiate allure. There’s also a striking electronic interlude, crackling into life through radio static to represent Cocteau’s ‘Zone’, the luminal space between dream and reality, inspiration and banality.
It’s tempting to say that this elliptical piece is a fresher direction for opera, but perhaps it could have been even more fragmentary, more daring in its use of allusion and intertextuality, much less reliant on narrative. That’s one possible direction for British opera. The performance is very well realised: well cast, performed with commitment and accurately recorded.