An Outstanding Musical Performance of Gawain at Salzburg

AustriaAustria  Salzburg Festival (1) – Birtwistle: Gawain:   Soloists, Salzburg Bach Choir (chorus master: Alois Glassner), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ingo Meztmacher (conductor). Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 2.8.2013 (MB)

Photo credit: Ruth Walz
Photo credit: Ruth Walz

Direction & Sets: Alvis Hermanis
Costumes: Eva Dessecker
Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky
Video: “Raketamedia”, Moscow
Dramaturgy: Ronny Dietrich
Chorus: Alois Glassner

Gawain: Christopher Maltman
Bertilak de Hautdesert / Green Knight: John Tomlinson
Morgan le Fay: Laura Aikin
Lady de Hautdesert: Jennifer Johnston
King Arthur: Thomas Jeffrey Llloyd-Roberts
Guinevere: Gun-Brit Barkmin
Bishop Baldwin: Andrew Watts
Fool: Brian Galliford
Agravain: Ivan Ludlow
Ywain: Alexander Sprague
+ acting roles

If it has taken Salzburg a while to produce an opera by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, then it has likewise taken an unconscionable while for Gawain to receive its second staging; the Salzburg Festival thus deserves a great vote of thanks for having done so, as a highly imaginative replacement for the postponed premiere of György Kurtág’s new Beckett opera. Kurtág’s Endgame, should that be the opera’s name, will, we are informed, be shown next year instead.

Which brings me to Alvis Hermanis’s rather puzzling production of Gawain. I could not help but wonder whether his post-apocalyptic vision, a few years in the ‘science fiction’ future, had started life as a response, if you can imagine this, to a version of Endgame with hordes of characters. Shifting the action from Arthurian times, and indeed from the thirteenth-century world in which Gawain and the Green Knight was written, does not trouble me, and one might argue for parallels between post-Roman Britain and a world following some unspecified future apocalypse, but it was unclear to me that the vagrant setting really works, or rather that it does anything much beyond providing an alternative ‘setting’. Hermanis makes a case for ecological issues: the ‘green’ of the ‘Green’ Knight, Nature taking its revenge in a scenario apparently inspired by Joseph Beuys, and a strangely glowing ‘magic’ green belt as the sash Lady Hautdesert gives to Gawain. But it is difficult either to understand such issues as central to the opera or to credit the director with an entirely plausible commentary or reinterpretation. Hermanis’s interest in Beuys, for instance, simply seems transplanted upon an existing work, to the benefit of neither.

That said, I was made to think – and the production deserves praise for that. It does not close down avenues of response, eccentric though its own chosen terms may be. It tantalises – and I do not think this is entirely my own reading, though it may be – with a dialectic between parallelism and difference; that is, we appreciate both that the new setting has things in common with the ‘original’ yet also how utterly different it is, thereby being compelled to place work, staging, and ourselves. The need for ritual, so much a preoccupation of both poem and opera, shines through, almost despite the dubious talk (in Hermanis’s programme note) of ‘science fiction’. And whatever one thinks of the ‘movement’, whether from a host of actors or, most astonishingly, from the best trained dog I have ever seen, it is accomplished with excellence. At a time when one often endures productions in which the director seems apparently unable to direct, there is succour to be gained from such professionalism.

Nor, most importantly, did the staging get in the way of what was an outstanding musical performance of a modern operatic masterpiece, scandalously neglected by houses that prefer endlessly to churn out the profundities of Donizetti. Ingo Metzmacher’s performance with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra perhaps placed Birtwistle in a more international, or better cosmopolitan, context than Elgar Howarth’s Covent Garden performances. Although I missed a sense of that ineffably ‘English’ quality that haunts Birtwistle’s music just as strongly as it does, say, that of Vaughan Williams, there were gains to be had too, especially for an ‘international’ audience in Salzburg. The performance was perhaps less primæval in its violence than Howarth’s – how vividly I still remember what was only my second evening at Covent Garden! – yet pacing, flow, and both the sheer array of colours and, where necessary, weight and incision of orchestral attack were second to none. It would certainly have been well-nigh impossible to over-praise the ORF orchestra. Birtwistle’s formal ritualistic preoccupations came to the fore through the medium that matters above all else, the music. It is, moreover, not entirely appropriate to the dramaturgical precepts of either the composer or his librettist, David Harsent, that there be some degree of disconnection between ‘dramatic’ and ‘orchestral’ action. Busoni’s influence perhaps extends further into the twentieth and even the twenty-first century than many of us appreciate.

So, of course, does Wagner’s. And with the Proms Ring so fresh in my memory, Birtwistle’s portrayal of flawed ‘heroism’, accomplished via different narrative standpoints, I was bound to think of Siegfried in Gawain. Christopher Maltman swaggered as a cowboy, his singing still more than his bathing offering ample reason for Gawain’s charismatic following. His journey towards ‘Why do you ask for someone who isn’t here? Who do you want me to be? I’m not a hero’ was not merely plausible, but immensely moving, and increasingly so. John Tomlinson is the Green Knight, of course, yet, despite a highly committed performance, it now takes an uncritical ‘fan’ not to be disturbed by the vocal problems at the top of his range. Laura Aikin and Jennifer Johnston were excellent Morgan le Fay and Lady Hautdesert. The eroticism of the former’s performance grew as she and Johnston’s character grew apart, indeed transformed themselves from commentators into participants. Hermanis’s direction assisted with that, but the depths of vocal characterisation upon which both singers drew were undeniably their own. Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts proved a steadfastly engaging King Arthur, the singer in infinitely superior vocal form to the last time I had heard him; I especially liked the directorial touch at the end of having him step up from his chair and make his first tentative steps towards an uncertain – heroic or non-heroic? – future. If Brian Galliford’s Fool sometimes lacked vocal lustre, his was a typically observant performance, using his words to highly dramatic advantage. Gun-Brit Barkmin, Andrew Watts, Ivan Ludlow, and Alexander Sprague all acquitted themselves very well indeed in their smaller roles. Special mention, however, must be accorded to the stunning offstage choral contribution, the Salzburg Bach Choir fully worthy of comparison with the illustrious orchestra in the pit. Alois Glassner clearly deserves great credit for his choral training.

‘Then with a single step your journey starts,’ sings Morgan le Fay – repeatedly. Let us hope that Gawain’s journey has (re-)started with this fascinating second step.

Mark Berry

See also: From the Salzburg Festival II (How to Explain Opera to a Dead Hare)