PHILIP LANGRIDGE in a gorilla suit meets Helen Field passing herself off as a picture by Vermeer, somewhere in the interstices of time. He says: I am the lost and lonely child of all the world. She says: Phone me. And the consequence is Harrison Birtwistle's new opera The Second Mrs Kong, which premiered this week at Glyndebourne with a degree of success that proves you can't judge an opera by its storyline. When Russell Hoban's Kong libretto dropped through my letterbox several weeks ago, I read it in disbelief that anything so crazily arcane would work on stage. But work it does, and with a self-deflating wit that steers it clear (only just, mind) of the cliff-edge of pretension.
The point of Kong is that its characters do not, in any terms, exist. Most of them are dead, a catholic collection of corpses that range from Orpheus and Euridice to a Texan beauty queen. The characters who aren't dead are conceptual, and they include the two main parts. King Kong (the Langridge role) is an 'idea' - because there never was a Kong, only a cinematic myth created from puppetry and camera angles. Pearl (Ms Field's role) is an 'image', taken from the portrait Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer. The one thing they have in common is a place in the collective consciousness of the world - including the world of the dead, which is how they come to be in this opera.
Vermeer (very dead) remembers painting Pearl who, resurrected in the mind of her creator and feeling lonely, calls out through time and sophisticated computer-dating technology for a companion. An answer comes from our similarly lonely, hairy hero. But Kong and Pearl's match is not made in heaven. They meet, but don't engage, and so supply the greater message of Hoban's text that the world turns on an energy derived from unfulfilled desire: an energy that creates the continuum of history and binds all cultures and times together. It's not a happy observation, nor a wholly original one. It has the ring of Schopenhauer about it, and The Second Mrs Kong could be a second Rhinegold in the way it fashions modern myth from epically surreal science fiction.
Still more Wagnerian is the music - conducted here by Elgar Howarth - which Birtwistle conceives in his usual terms of unendliche Melodie with the grinding relentlessness of a juggernaut in the slow lane. The centre of gravity lies solidly in the orchestra, from which ideas rise into the voices -or not, in the case of long sequences for orchestra alone. The singing can sound optional at times. But it's a forceful score that manages to make space for the deft one-liners in the text and even broaches what I take to be a touch of self-parody in Act I where bits of stage action and their music are comically repeated in the cyclic format Birtwistle is famous for.
Gratuitousness is a charge that could be levelled at much of Kong. Russell Hoban might have expounded his theme in less abstrusely picaresque terms; Birtwistle's score might have been more focused. But the result is captivating theatre, beautifully presented in a production by Tom Cairns that pays its post-Wagnerian mythic dues with exemplary (and uncommon) taste. Cairns is his own designer, and the sets are lyrically hi-tech: stylish, ingenious, but atmospheric. It's a real show. And it comes with memorable cameos from character singers such as Phyllis Cannan as the beauty queen and Nuala Willis whose matronly, would-be seductive sphinx gets the best jokes. How such a complex piece of staging will survive on tour over the coming weeks I can't imagine. But at Glyndebourne it was fascinating, funny and, I couldn't help thinking, the piece Michael Tippett's hi-tech myth New Year should have been when it opened in the same place with a similar cast but far less style four years ago.
The British premiere of Shostakovich's 1950s operetta Cheryomushki at the Lyric, Hammersmith, isn't very stylish either: more ideas have gone into it than money, so the staging has a rough-cut rawness. But then, so has the music, which is Shostakovich at his most vernacular, appealing to the Soviet masses with infuriatingly banal but lingering tunes. And I have to say, I loved it - partly because Wasfi Kani conducts her own Pimlico Opera Company with such energy, but equally because the piece itself is such a curious memorial to its times. Where but old Soviet Russia would anyone have written an operetta on the Utopian joys of moving into a new model housing estate - still less, on the sprawling, bleak development in the Moscow suburbs that Cheryomushki actually is?
The fascination of Shostakovich's score is that, as so often, his own stance is ambiguous. The point where earnest idealism breaks into irony is hard to chart, as enshrouded in duplicity and double-meaning as a cold-war thriller.
And how bizarre this housing estate musical must have been at its premiere in 1959, opulently staged with an enormous orchestra.
Wasfi Kani uses a reorchestration by Gerard McBurney that cuts things down to dance-band size; but it packs an effective punch, alongside a bustling production by Lucy Bailey and a translation by David Pountney that makes the numbers all too memorable. The run at the Lyric was undeservedly short. With the injection of some cash for better sets, Cheryomushki would make a riotous import to some summer festival.
The Wexford Festival's annual turn-out of the operatic bottom drawer continued last weekend with two more productions: one a near-miss and the other a resounding triumph. The near-miss was La Boheme, not by Puccini but by Leoncavallo who was Puccini's contemporary, rival and in this case direct competitor.
Puccini's version was the first to reach the stage and ultimately claimed the preference of history. But Leoncavallo's is closer to the Henri Murger stories, takes a more panoramic view of Parisian low-life, and profiles different characters. The central love interest falls between Musetta and Marcello (who accordingly becomes a tenor) rather than Mimi and Rodolfo (downgraded to baritone).
The problem is that Leoncavallo keeps the death of Mimi as his closing scena; so the natural trajectory of the piece shifts off-course, aggravated by the inbalance of a hyperactive first half and a near-static second. Add to that a score of limited invention and we were left at Wexford with an evening carried solely by a couple of outstanding performances: Jonathan Veira's Schaunard and Patrick Wroblewski's Rodolfo.
Wagner's Das Liebesverbot, though, is Wexford at its all-round best: a revelation, in a brilliantly flamboyant staging, and a cast that does credit to Elaine Padmore in her final year as the festival's artistic director and talent-finder extraordinary. Das Liebesverbot is early Wagner, written when he was 21 and looking outside Germany for lyric inspiration. The story is Shakespeare's Measure for Measure relocated to Sicily; and the music, as any book will tell you, is Italian bel canto. Donizetti and Bellini.
But it's still Wagner in the melodic shapes and phrase structures; and how handsomely they were delivered by the Israeli bass Gidon Saks, how ravishingly by the American soprano Marie Pletts. With a strong chorus, marshalled into lively tableaux by director Dieter Kaegi and conducted with pace and fervour by Yves Abel, Das Liebesverbot proved a viable piece. Of course, it was cut - the original score rambles as only Wagner can - but with cunning and craft. As so often before, I left wondering how on earth Wexford managed it. That it did, and does, is why this festival is such a treasure.
'Kong' continues on Fri at Apollo Theatre, Oxford, 0865 244544, then tours to Norwich, Plymouth, Woking and Manchester.
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