About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network


Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



A green knight at the opera

Royal Opera House
01/11/2000 -  and 13, 15, 17 January 2000
Harrison Birtwistle Gawain
Constance Hauman (Morgan le Fay), Kathryn Turpin (Lady de Hautdesert), Robert Tear (Arthur), Anne Mason (Guinever), Thomas Randle (A fool), Quentin Hayes (Agravain), Peter Wedd (Ywain), Andew Watts (Bishop Baldwin), Tom Marty (Bedvere), John Tomlinson (Green knight/Bertilak de Hautdesert)
Elgar Howarth (conductor), Di Trevis (director)
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

No-one ever quite comes out and says it, but Morgan le Fay is the producer, director and stage manager of the drama in Birtwistles Gawain. By giving her the first and last words, which set Gawain off on his repetitive but developmental journey, Birtwistle and the librettist David Harsent, make her the immediate source of all the theatrical illusion we see. Her obsession with marking each step that Gawain takes towards his fate shapes the fine-grain repetitive ritual of the score, and counterpoints the bigger gestures of the narrative. Birtwistle and Harsent ditch most of the upfront misogyny of the original and make Morgan and her collaborators into an image of the dangers and pleasures of drama itself, which provides a space for aggression in civilized souls and societies and love in violent ones.

Harsent's libretto has Birtwistle's own characteristic obsessions, the cycle of the seasons (during which Gawain prepares himself for his second meeting with the green knight), the spiritual and spatial journey, and extreme but playful violence in the beheading of the green knight and in Bertilak's hunt. But there is a strong sense that Gawain is about civilization as much as about nature, and especially about a deadly embrace between the two. Arthur's bored request for deeds of courage is (probably partly) a joke about the tedium of Christmas, but it is also a sign that his cultivated court at Camelot lacks something vital. When Lady de Hautcourt (who is basically queen of the wasteland) demands courtly love from Gawain, she expects poetry and civilized conventions to add to her pleasure. Only Gawain himself manages to step outside the cycle of wanting the opposite of what he has, but at the expense of denying himself totally and walking beyond the path Morgana has set for him.

This is the third time the Royal Opera has presented the original production of Gawain, and it still works. The set is organized from simple circles and rectangles, with the round table rising in the middle of a rotating path and a massive double door at the back. The costumes are "dark age" rather than Camelot, all a bit grubby looking, except for Morgan and Lady de Hautdesert, who are more gracefully draped. The two women fly in on a blue fluorescent circle, which reappears as a light frame from time to time. The seasons are staged with a set that reproduces the starry firmament of the Trés riches heures and images from within the pictures. It all holds together visually as well as musically by building up striking ideas from simple components.

This performance was building up a powerful momentum when, about half an hour in, it was stopped rather ungracefully because an essential piece of machinery wasn't working. Amazingly, there seemed to be no way to communicate with the conductor -- a very brave stage manager walked downstage and told everybody to stop. We never heard what the problem was, but presumably it was the lift that brought the green knight on his hobby horse to behind the double doors. This seemed to work at times, but a lot of to-ing and fro-ing could be seen at the back of the stage once the performance restarted half an hour later. The singers carried on, but it's quite possible that some of them weren't quite on form afterwards.

Constance Hauman as Morgan and Kathryn Turpin as Lady de Hautdesert made a cryptic, elegant pair of villains. John Tomlinson was impressively monolithic as the green knight (and his animatronic head sang impressively as well). Wilhelm Hartman was a beautiful Gawain, far more powerful than he seemed. Thomas Randle was striking as the fool who sees through the ways of the court. It really seems unfair to put singers like this (and the rest of the very good ensemble and chorus) through the misery of performing in a house that doesn't work properly yet.

H.E. Elsom



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com