Birtwistle Games – 8

The Second Mrs Kong [London premiere; concert staging]

Kong – John Daszak
Pearl – Rebecca von Lipinski
Anubis/Death of Kong – Stephen Richardson
Vermeer – Roderick Williams
Mirror – Claire Booth
Mirror Echo – Amy Freston
Inanna – Susan Bickley
Mr Dollarama – Robert Poulton
Swami Zumzum – Andrew Forbes-Lane
Orpheus – Andrew Watts
Madame Lena – Nuala Willis
Eurydice – Lucy Crowe

Apollo Voices
Sound Intermedia
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 November, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The South Bank’s “Birtwistle Games” retrospective has featured no more important performance than this first complete London performance of the composer’s opera, “The Second Mrs Kong”. After having received a favourable if somewhat bemused reception during its Glyndebourne run a decade ago, the work has since been relatively neglected; unfairly, as in bringing together those qualities which might reasonably be called ‘dramatic’, this is possibly Birtwistle’s most inclusive and satisfying stage-work.

For a start, Russell Hoban’s libretto – derived from his novel of that name – is the finest, in terms of literary quality and expressive reach, that Birtwistle has yet set: indeed, it is one of the finest opera librettos of the past half-century. This is not to deny the dramatic or theatrical efficacy of those for “The Mask of Orpheus” or “Gawain”; but their rhetorical starkness seems designed to be embodied in music, whereas that for ‘Mrs Kong’ exists perfectly well on its own merits: an incitement to explore precisely those compositional facets that serve to heighten the synthesis of words and music.

On an immediate level, the orchestral writing is of a delicacy and luminosity – without sacrificing intricacy of texture – that Birtwistle had seldom before approached: a constantly fluctuating ‘sea’ of incident appropriate in a drama at whose centre the sea of time separates the living from the dead. The vocal characterisation is appreciably less declamatory and monumental than those of previous large-scale stage-works – unfolding in long, lyrical lines that permit an intimate, even confessional expression; and against which, the sardonic asides and one-liners that Hoban liberally throws in are a reminder that this is a comedy, albeit of a thoughtful and deeply human complexion.

‘Human’ is itself an ironic term in the context of an opera whose main protagonists either no longer are or never actually were. Hence the pathos of love that develops between Kong – an ape who only ever existed in reality as an idea, and Pearl – a woman who only ever existed in reality as a portrait. Their coming-together across time and space, ostensibly to meet in the cold environs of present-day reality, cannot and never will be – hence the lines that might serve as a epigraph for the whole opera: “It is not love that moved the world from night to morning, it is the longing from what cannot be”.

A work, then, that draws on the full expressive range of its cast, such as was met admirably by the line-up for this concert performance. John Daszak made of Kong a soulful idea who emerges from the shadows only as he begins to focus his human potential, with Rebecca von Lipinski’s plaintive Pearl a representation who longs for corporeal fulfilment. Stephen Richardson’s Anubis was a commanding but rational figure of authority, whose duty as boatman to the dead is outweighed by his fascination with the urge of these two towards the living, while Roderick Williams had the necessary ardency for Vermeer, a Pygmalion-like creator who desires to possess that which he has created.

Instant repartee was made between the Inanna-Dollarama-Zumzum triumvirate, whose continuing of their earthly confrontation in the afterlife might be taken as a sideswipe at the ‘money fixes all’ mentality. Pairing Claire Booth’s Mirror with Amy Freston’s Mirror Echo gave a poetic dimension to the drama’s central premise, resulting in lambent singing of perhaps Birtwistle’s most affecting operatic writing; in striking contrast to the mythical Orpheus – able to charm the telephone into accepting an unpaid call – and Madame Lena, the ‘customary sphinx’ with as much concern in having her riddles answered as Kong has in answering them. Through the predicament of these characters, Birtwistle establishes unexpected links with The Mask of Orpheus, and evinces a dry, self-deprecatory humour.

Kenneth Richardson’s concert-staging was as effective as it was functional, and Sound Intermedia ensured that the vocal writing – audibly but never garishly amplified – carried over the orchestration, essential in an opera whose words need to be appreciated in context. Martyn Brabbins drew playing of no mean subtlety from the BBCSO, directing with a sure command of the dramatic pacing: at around 80 minutes, Act One seems too long for its dramatic good, but Act Two – essentially a journey travelled in hope – has a dramatic poise Birtwistle has rarely equalled. A worthy contribution too from Apollo Voices, too, its members varying between occasional soloists and an ironic ‘Greek Chorus’ with unobtrusive ease. But then, irony, tempered and enriched by pathos, is crucial to “The Second Mrs Kong” as in no other of Birtwistle’s stage-works: hopefully the present performance will prove more than a one-off revival.

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