The music for Harrison Birtwistle’s opera about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was loudly heckled at its Covent Garden premiere in 1991, partly because parts of it are so complex – and so loud – that it’s impossible to hear the voices, let alone the words of the singers.
The current short run of performances has surtitles and while they surely shouldn’t be necessary for an opera in English, for heaven’s sake, they certainly do add to the understanding of the opera, and therefore the enjoyment.
And enjoyment there is in plenty. Di Trevis’ production is truly magical, not least in Morgan le Fay’s wonderful laser-light casting of spells on poor hapless Gawain as he struggles to live up to his reputation as a hero.
The Green Knight himself is pretty splendid, too – John Tomlinson returns with his booming bass voice to play the mysterious figure who arrives at King Arthur’s Court to test the courage of the Knights.
Who will accept his challenge: to strike an undefended axe blow at the Green Knight, with the proviso that he must accept a blow in return a year and a day later? No problem, the Green Knight will be dead from the first blow… except that of course he isn’t, and in a marvellous coup de theatre his head goes on singing long after it has been well and truly separated from his body.
The whole episode has of course been conjured into being by Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s wicked half-sister, who likes nothing better than stirring up trouble and has formidable magic powers at her disposal. The bargain struck, poor Gawain is condemned to set off for the snowy wastes of the North to keep his appointment with death.
Perhaps the most delightful section of the whole opera takes us through the year in between. Before our very eyes a medieval book of hours comes to life, complete with golden arcs against a lapis sky, peasants carrying out the tasks appropriate to the season, trees going from bare and frosty through bursting leaf, maturity and harvest to autumnal shades and back to frost.
During this gorgeous feast for the eyes Gawain (ably sung by the young Wilhelm Hartmann, who makes a suitably charming and heroic figure), is stripped naked to be cleansed and robed for his forthcoming ordeal. I can’t think of too many tenors in which this would be an aesthetic pleasure so the ladies should make the most of it.
Gawain’s long and dispiriting journey brings him to the castle of Lord Bertilak de Haudesert, close to the Green Knight’s Chapel. Lady de Haudesert, in league with Morgan le Fay, attempts to seduce our hero while her husband is out hunting – but the events of the year have changed Gawain and made him realise the ideals of the court are shallow and meaningless. He resists her advances and by dealing fairly with her husband, redeems his own life…
This is a gorgeous production of an opera that is standing the test of time. The music, while not easy, does become a little more intelligible as it grows more familiar. There is a superb cast – for example the tenor Thomas Randle (another who strips to advantage!) in the relatively small part of King Arthur’s fool, an impressive Royal Opera debut for Constance Hauman as the sinuous Morgan and Robert Tear as a rather petulant Arthur.
There are only a few performances, but catch one if you can – and if you aren’t put off by the continuing arrogance of the Royal Opera House. In the admittedly wonderful new space for intervals, the Floral Hall, they were offering glasses of champagne at a ‘promotional price’ of £19.50. Who are they trying to kid?