Monday 21 November 2022

2117/Hedd Wyn: Stephen McNeff & Gruff Rhys' Welsh language opera celebrating the Welsh poet

Stephen McNeff: 2117/Hedd Wyn -Ty Cerdd
Stephen McNeff: 2117/Hedd Wyn; Steffan Lloyd Owen, Meinir Wyn Roberts, Paul Carey Jones, Llio Evans, Alys Mererid Roberts, Craig Yates, Laurence Kilsby, and William Rennie with Welsh National Youth Opera, Only Boys Aloud Academi 2017, Only Boys Aloud, and Welsh National Opera Orchestra conducted by Stephen McNeff; Tŷ Cerdd Records
Reviewed 16 November 2022 (★★★★)

An intriguing Welsh language opera celebrating the poet Hedd Wyn in a rhapsodic fantasy that merges fact and fiction, drama and community performance, all with McNeff's imaginative score

Stephen McNeff's opera 2117/Hedd Wyn has had an intriguing history. Written for the 2017 centenary of the death of Welsh poet Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans), the opera has a libretto by poet and writer Gruff Rhys (best known for his association with the Welsh rock band Super Furry Animals) and was intended to be used for a film being produced by Welsh National Opera (WNO). The film never happened, but the soundtrack was recorded. And this has finally seen the light of day.

On the Tŷ Cerdd label, Stephen McNeff and Gruff Rhys' 2117/Hedd Wyn features Steffan Lloyd Owen, Meinir Wyn Roberts, Paul Carey Jones, Llio Evans, Alys Mererid Roberts, Craig Yates, Laurence Kilsby, William Rennie with Welsh National Youth Opera, Only Boys Aloud Academi 2017, Only Boys Aloud, and Welsh National Opera Orchestra conducted by Stephen McNeff.

As McNeff comments in his introductory article in the CD booklet, if it had not been for the events of 1917 on the Western Front, Ellis Humphrey Evans would have been known only to the connoisseurs of Welsh language poetry. But he was conscripted, thrown into the Third Battle of Ypres and died at the Battle of Passchendaele, but he had already written his greatest poem and sent it back to Wales. As a result, he won the bardic chair posthumously and created a legend that was still strong at the centenary of his death.

Recording 2117/Hedd Wyn in 2017 (Photos Ryan Eddleston)
Recording 2117/Hedd Wyn in 2017 (Photos Ryan Eddleston)
The opera was commissioned by WNO and intended from the outset to use the young people of the Welsh National Youth Opera and Only Boys Aloud. The intention to avoid hagiographic and historical approaches to the story was there from the beginning, but Rhys' approach is intriguing. He sets the story in 2117 after a nuclear disaster at Trawsfynydd nuclear power station and with the Welsh language facing extinction, a small group of people come together to put on an opera based on local legend Hedd Wyn. The result merges fact and fiction, drama and science fiction, and blends future and past, including the reincarnation of a 1960s singing group Y Pelydrau (The Rays), who narrate the drama. Rhys has also used elements of Hedd Wyn's poetry and fragments of the Mabinogi.

I will be quite frank I find Rhys' libretto unnecessarily complex, and it requires quite a bit of concentration to work out what is going on. Part of the problem lies in the CD booklet itself, as the Welsh names and titles have not been translated, nor is there a list of roles with descriptions as to who each one is. Whilst it is clear that Y Fon Hon (Llio Evans) is the female teacher, I am still not sure who Y Bon Pedr (Paul Carey Jones) is. Add to that my ingrained suspicion of any new opera that requires an introductory explanation to set up what is going on.

But there is no doubt that McNeff has created a remarkable and engaging work, full of lovely sounds. There are multiple groups involved rather than a monolithic separation of soloists and chorus. There is Y Pelydrau (Jess Robinson, Sioned Llewellyn, Aimee Daniels, Kieron-Connor Valentine, Richard Maldwyn), the Owls (Ffion Edwards, Eleri Gwilym, Morgana Warren-Jones), plus of course the chorus with the participation of the young men of Only Boys Aloud. This latter, in itself, changes the sound world and McNeff uses these groups with relish, and his writing involves hymn-like elements and other half-familiar fragments, alongside some vividly scored orchestral writing.

The chorus role is very significant, the libretto's depiction of a community performance means that the chorus is given plenty to do and throughout they really rise to the challenge. The soloists are led by Paul Carey Jones as Y Bon Pedr, the person coordinating the whole event in the opera, with Llio Evans as the female teacher. There is some wonderfully lyrical, almost rhapsodic writing for Steffan Lloyd Owen as Hedd Wyn and Meinir Wyn Roberts as Jini, often to Hedd Wyn's own poetry. Lloyd George (Craig Yates) makes an appearance as does a rather vicious English officer (Laurence Kilsby). But this is less about individual character than the total, a community coming together to enact a story and becoming so engaged that past and present fuse.

The overall sound world is certainly engaging and McNeff's score is full of good things. He has clearly relished the challenge of writing for these particular forces. The piece rattles along wonderfully, though if you want to know what is going on you have to follow the libretto closely. It is a shame that the film was not made, thus clarifying what we hear. But there is no doubt that this is a remarkable work.

Welsh language operas are not ten-a-penny, and this large-scale one complete with a youth element is particularly generous in scale and imagination. Having listened to the discs, I now want to see a performance and do hope that this recording spurs someone on. But in the present politico-economic climate, this feels unlikely

Gruff Rhys & Stephen McNeff (Photo by Matthew Thistlewod)
Gruff Rhys & Stephen McNeff (Photo by Matthew Thistlewod)

Stephen McNeff & Gruff Rhys: 2117/Hedd Wyn (2017) [1:31:44]
Carlo/Hedd Wyn/Yr Arwr - Steffan Lloyd Owen (baritone)
Modlen/Jini/Merch y Drycin - Meinir Wyn Roberts (soprano)
Y Bon Pebr - Paul Carey Jones (bass-baritone)
Y Fon Hon - Llio Evans (soprano)
Awen/Muse - Alys Mererid Roberts (soprano)
Lloyd George - Craig Yates (baritone)
English Officer - Laurence Kilsby (tenor)
Anglo-Welsh NCO - William Rennie (tenor)
Welsh National Youth Opera
Only Boys Aloud
Only Boys Aloud Academi 2017
Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Stephen McNeff (conductor)
Recorded at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 10-12 April 2017
Tŷ CERDD RECORDS TCR037 2CDs [44:00, 50:06]

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