The big idea
Harrison Birtwistle: The Second Mrs Kong
John Daszak (Kong), Rebecca von Lipinski (Pearl), Stephen Richardson (Anubis/Death of Kong), Roderick Williams (Vermeer), Claire Booth (Mirror), Amy Freston (Mirror Echo), Susan Bickley (Inanna), Robert Poulton (Mr Dollarama), Andrew Forbes-Lane (Swami Zumzum), Andrew Watts (Orpheus), Nuala Willis (Madame Lena), Lucy Crowe (Eurydice)
Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Kenneth Richardson (director)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Apollo Voices
The BBC Symphony Orchestra needs a new conductor in chief. If Martyn Brabbins doesn't want the job, he shouldn't have made quite such a convincing job of this concert performance of The Second Mrs Kong. On the evidence of tonight, it is incredible that Birtwistle's opera from 1996 has not been staged since. Perhaps a plot involving a giant ape, Vermeer's girl with a pearl earring and an enormous erection, possibly Canary Wharf, looks forbidding and, in combination with Birtwistle's reputation for difficult music, impossible to deliver or sell without Glyndebourne's generous resources and mellow audience. The music is certainly rich and probably difficult, although you might not have guessed it from the BBC SO's performance for Brabbins.
Russell Hoban's libretto is also a gem, combining myth and ritual of love and death with witty reflections on capitalism, the movies, the possessive gaze and very tall buildings. The overall shape is that of a quest, not so far from Punch and Judy, in which Kong (the not-really-dead idea of the ape in the film) seeks Pearl, the girl in Vermeer's painting. Kong, in the underworld by mistake, leaves the repetitive dead in Hades and climbs a skyscraper in London in a replay of his courtship of Fay Wray, bringing Orpheus, or at least his head, with him for guidance. It is both comic and poignant that the character who is most alive in the opera is the one who never lived, while the "real" people exist as mechanically reproduced experiences that become increasingly unsatisfactory, both to themselves and to their main audience, Anubis and a choir of the colourless dead. Kong's doom, on falling in love, is to become real and so subject to reproduction, trapped in the memory of a moment.
The first-rate cast did well by both the music and the comedy. John Daszak was sweetly obsessed as Kong, far from beautiful of voice but very moving. Rebecca von Lipinski was pure of voice and heart as Pearl, an embodiment of the flash of anxious life in the painting. Claire Booth and Amy Freston as the voice of the mirror and its echo reflected her purity beautifully. Roderick Williams was a romantic Vermeer, also apparently trapped in the moment of the painting, and the countertenor Andrew Watts melodious and otherworldly as Orpheus. (All the singers were discreetly amplified.) The rest of the ensemble were equally good, with outstanding comic turns from Susan Bickley as Inanna, a dead goddess married in life to the sleazy film producer Mr Dollarama (Robert Poulton, reprising the role from Glyndebourne), and Nuala Willis (the other survivor from Glyndebourne) as Madame Lena, the Sphinx who guards the exit from the underworld.
Kenneth Richardson's semi-staging used the Festival Hall's platform and choir expertly, with Kong and Pearl singing to each other from above the orchestra on opposite sides and their messages projected on to a screen in front of the organ. The orchestral interludes were accompanied by appropriate movies, including a flash of Brief Encounter and King Kong itself. It shows how good Birtwistle's opera is that it seemed almost as good as the movie.