OPERA / Strong meat: Stephen Walsh on Flowers, the Music Theatre Wales premiere

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If the test of an opera is that you would pay to see it again, then John Hardy's new chamber opera Flowers, commissioned by Music Theatre Wales and premiered by them in Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre on Thursday, is for me a failure. It's a biggish 'if', though. While neither agreeable nor amusing, Flowers is a strong piece that seems to do what it sets out to, which isn't the case with many first operas. Its defects lie in the intention, and intentions - like tastes - can't be discussed.

Or can they? Flowers is another of those first-operatic 'statements' which pin their drama to a social metaphor. Hardy's microcosm is a slaughterhouse faced with ruin because of the reluctance of its old-world-ethical manager to meet modern production targets which threaten his quasi-mystical relationship with the animals he has to kill.

The work concentrates on the slaughtermen, ending with a fight in which first one, then the other, falls victim to the methods of the trade. Intercut with this allegorical round-up of today's main news stories is a series of monologues for an Ophelian soprano - the victim, so far as one can understand her, of a failed love affair (alias the modern world's failure to allow for human feelings). Her narrative linkage with the plot is obscure until she appears at the moment of ritual slaughter and unexpectedly falls into the would- be slaughterer's arms.

Hardy's problem with this material - or is it just mine? - is its unrelenting, agonising grimness. Known in Cardiff for theatre and film music of a certain rhythmic ferocity, he hasn't sought to lighten Flowers with popular - still less vulgar - elements which might set the feet tapping while the emotions seared. Instead his musical metaphors are all too well integrated with the scenic ones, and from the ear-splitting imitation of knives being sharpened which makes up the prelude, to the hubbub of the culminating fight, the little seven-piece band rarely does anything but insist that life is a discordant mess.

The fact that it does so with terrific conviction, with a flair for torturous sonic imagery, and with no hint that the composer is not in complete control of his materials, is a redemption only in hinting at what Hardy might achieve once he decided that opera is drama (and maybe fun) as well as metaphor. For all this, Flowers is eminently stageable, and MTW do it with their habitual energy and concentration. Michael McCarthy's production (designer Richard Aylwin) pulls no punches but avoids gratuitous viciousness.

The singing and playing are likewise admirably focused. Gareth Lloyd and Michael Bundy are finely matched as the two slaughtermen: the tenor pragmatic but sensitive, the baritone idealistic but capable of brutality. Eirian Davies sings with much warmth and involvement in a part which offers nothing dramatically. Michael Rafferty conducts a fiercely controlled account of the disagreeably impressive score.

Final performance at Chapter tonight (0222 399666), then touring