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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Birtwistle, Second Mrs Kong Soloists, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Brabbins. RFH, Tuesday, November 9th, 2004 (CC)


What a revelation. Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s imagination seems to know no bounds. In a pre-series interview at the QEH, Birtwistle referred to a compositional compost-heap he reaches into for ideas. Some compost.


That Birtwistle has long been fascinated by myth is common knowledge. Here is a slightly different slant. If Anubis the jackal-headed boatman is the stuff of ancient Egyptian myth, King Kong is very much modern (if nevertheless somewhat distanced from us in 2004). Birtwistle’s virtuosity is to unite ancient with modern and the fairly recent (Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring of 1665/6) in a never-never, post-death nowhere-land populated by a diverse set of characters. The result is astonishing in its richness. Under a lesser composer, this could simply be an excuse for quasi-philosophical comedy. And humour there is, too. But in his multi-layered exploration of, in effect, states of consciousness and of existence, non-existence and semi-existence, we move a million miles away from, say, the use of latter-day icons in the insubstantial music of Michael Daugherty. In Russell Hoban, another artist (a writer, here librettist) whose work regularly confronts myth, Birtwistle found the perfect mate.


The Second Mrs Kong was first staged by Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1994. It opens in archetypically modernist fashion (low, subterranean grumblings, although the scoring, which includes two muted tubas, is worthy of note). Matching this sound, the auditorium is dark. Anubis (bass-baritone Stephen Richardson) enters. It was a surprise to see surtitles in use, yet they did help focus. Anubis is ferrying dead across to an island in the World of Shadows - included in their number are Mr Dollarama, who remembers finding his ex-beauty queen wife Inanna in bed with Swami Zumzum and shooting them both (the shooting is repeated frequently, as if ‘stuck’ outside of time). At the same time, Vermeer (the painter) remembers the Girl with the Pearl Earring and Orpheus relives his backward glance towards Eurydice to elegiac musc.


It was wonderful to hear the consistency of excellence among the soloists. Roderick Williams was a lyric Vermeer; Andrew Watts’ clarion counter-tenor (mistakenly labelled ‘tenor’ in the programme) was of astonishing strength and 1950’s-clad Susan Bickley was, as always, strong and intensely musical as Inanna.


The second scene consists of a recollection by Vermeer of his first meeting with Pearl in Delft in 1664. Williams captivated the imagination, in moments of real sadness. We had to wait until now for Kong to arrive, here in the form of ENO regular John Daszak (most recently Aeneas in Trojans, to Susan Bickley’s Cassandra). A reminder of the Coliseum’s problematic acoustics, in the RFH Daszak sounded firmer, more confident, and rounder.


As Vermeer falls for Pearl (soprano Rebecca von Lipinski, pure-voiced, agile and innocent), Birtwistle elongates the melodic lines into endless melismas. In fact, while on the surface a reading of the plot might indicate the foregrounding of comedic elements, the sheer range of emotional reference is far more. Not only is there the erotically charged Vermeer/Pearl coupling, but also there is the infinitely touching sadness of Kong’s crisis of (non) existence. Who is he? Who was he? An idea - nothing more? It was here that the choice of Daszak was fully justified. His voice has a naturally plaintive quality that reflects the character’s existential disorientation. The duet between Kong and Pearl was heartrendingly beautiful.


The use of film/video was remarkably effective. A montage of the Six O’clock News, Mollie Sugden (as Mrs Slocombe in the comedy classic ‘Are you being served?’), Tom Baker as Dr Who and Birtwistle himself in his kitchen describing how to separate egg yolk and white by just using your fingers seemed to reflect the world of unexpected juxtapositions that Hoban and Birtwistle play with. Naturally the film of King Kong, and his shooting by planes and subsequent fall from the top of the building is there in all its glory. Pearl gives Kong a telephone number (020 7465 1665: I rang it, it exists although I didn’t like to wait around to see who answered. Of course, 1665 is the year of Vermeer’s painting).


The shorter Act II begins with the baleful song of the counter-tenor Orpheus as he and Kong cross the Sea of Memory to hunt for Pearl, encountering Doubt, Fear, Despair and Terror. The mimicking of rowing boats was purposely stagy and funny. I like also the pun at the Customs Barrier (Scene 2) where the head of Orpheus (he is freshly decapitated, by Despair) and Kong come up against a ‘customary’ sphinx called Madam Lena, Birtwistle’s Erda (the truly excellent contralto, Nuala Willis).


The call made by Kong (from a payphone handed to him by Martyn Brabbins) to Pearl (at the back of the stage) in Scene 3 leads to an affecting love-duet as they remember their feelings for one another. But Kong is confronted by Death of Kong (Stephen Richardson, previously Anubis, now sporting ‘DOK’ on his front), a confrontation that results in his realisation of the very reason of his being - he is an idea, and an idea cannot die. The close of the opera, a meditation on love that cannot be, is intensely powerful, its timelessness underscored by the ritual feel that Birtwistle so expertly gives the ending.



This performance was recorded by the BBC, for broadcast on Saturday November 13th at 6.30pm. Do try to hear it.



Colin Clarke

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