It is twenty-three years since Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain premiered at the Royal Opera House. It has undergone several revisions since, but at the Barbican, as part of its two-week celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday, the full-blown 1991 version was displayed in all its glory.
Semi-staging the piece, which is based on the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, certainly had its effect on how it came across. The sheer size of the orchestra required for the work meant that the performance area at the front of the stage was highly limited. The visual impact of such a large band of musicians, however, was overwhelming in its own right, and the very act of singers taking just a few steps forward to make their ‘proclamations’ from a music stand handed their words a certain sense of monumentality.
John Lloyd Davies’s direction also affected those elements of the story that came across most clearly. For example, the second half of Act I sees the kitting out of Gawain over a year to withstand the blow to the neck he is to receive. The minimal level of staging, however, only served to remind us that this section is not really about armour, helmets or swords at all. Even at this point, surely Gawain is as aware as us that the outcome of his encounter with the Green Knight will not depend on how well he is physically protected. As a result, we engage far more with the psychological and emotional journey that he goes through across the seasons, which is surely what this part of the opera is really about.
Musically, Gawain arguably represents Birtwistle at his most monumental, with a score that can knock us flat when the brass are at their most climactic, or the harp and cimbalom sounds reverberate around the hall. In Martyn Brabbins’ account, however, it also became very easy to feel the hypnotic, perhaps even meditative, power of the music as we were taken on a journey of change through the seasons.
All the same, given the volume levels frequently required of the orchestra, the amplification of the soloists felt justified, and was sensitively managed. When Sir John Tomlinson appeared as the Green Knight following his ‘decapitation’, it was from a door in the back wall of the Barbican stage. Here the volume level on his microphone was increased, partly because his voice had to carry over the huge orchestra, but mainly to give it the required ghostly edge. All chorus singing came through microphones from offstage, while green lighting and screens featuring woodland, knights, images of the seasons and key lines of the text completed the effect.
Leigh Melrose was an excellent Gawain, with an assertive voice that also proved rich, exciting and tonally strong. Jennifer Johnston was blessed with a direct yet beautifully rounded sound as Lady de Hautdesert, while Laura Aikin as Morgan le Fey, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as King Arthur and Rachel Nicholls as Guinevere also stood out.
The highest accolades, however, went to Tomlinson who played The Green Knight and Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert in the original production, and whose standard of performance at the age of 67 was probably only the tiniest notch down from the one he gave in 1991. Occasionally, when he had to sustain (for example) a low note, he adjusted his sound halfway through in order to maintain it, but even this act of ‘fudging’ was executed smoothly and with great skill. Overall, his singing was strong and engaging, his acting second to none, and he alone among the cast sang every note from memory.
This performance of Gawain will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 15 July 2014.
The Birtwistle at 80 festival continues at the Barbican until 30 May. For details of all events click here.