Harrison Birtwistle • Gawain
Opera in two acts (1990–1991/1994/1999)
by Sir Harrison Birtwistle (*1934)
Libretto by David Harsent (*1942)
based on the anonymous Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
With German and English surtitles
Print programme (PDF)
Ingo Metzmacher, Conductor
Alvis Hermanis, Director and Sets
Eva Dessecker, Costumes
Gleb Filshtinsky, Lighting
Gudrun Hartmann, Assistant Director
Uta Gruber-Ballehr, Assistant Set Designer
Alois Glaßner, Chorus Master
Christopher Maltman, Gawain
John Tomlinson, The Green Knight/Bertilak de Hautdesert
Laura Aikin, Morgan le Fay
Jennifer Johnston, Lady de Hautdesert
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, King Arthur
Gun-Brit Barkmin, Guinevere
Andrew Watts, Bishop Baldwin
Brian Galliford, A Fool
Ivan Ludlow, Agravain
Alexander Sprague, Ywain
ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien
At the 1968 premiere of the first opera by the 34-year-old Harrison Birtwistle, Benjamin Britten walked out of the theatre in protest – hardly a good omen for the future career of an English composer who was endeavouring to beat a path out of the provincial county of Lancashire into the wider musical world. Birtwistle had gained his initial experience as a musician playing the clarinet in amateur ensembles in his native town of Accrington, and later studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music. After Britten’s death in 1976 Birtwistle gradually advanced to become the leading British composer of his generation, despite strong competition, for example from his contemporary, Peter Maxwell Davies, who like Birtwistle championed all the musical innovations that were making an impact in continental Europe.
Long regarded by audiences as the doyen of contemporary British music after Britten and knighted in 1988, Birtwistle has enriched the musical life of our time over the past fifty years in nearly all genres with works that speak their own language and are not obliged to any particular compositional tendencies.
Premiered at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1991, Gawain is Birtwistle’s third opera and has been revised several times. The libretto by the British writer David Harsent (b. 1942) is based on a medieval heroic epic associated with the Arthurian legends and offers an arsenal of elements that are typical of this genre, from gloomy castles, eerie nocturnal apparitions and magical powers to political intrigue and amorous entanglements. But the stuff of which operatic dreams have always been cut is here woven into a new pattern.
Gawain has been described by a German critic as a landmark in an operatic tradition that is set between the poles of the familiar canon and audience-alienating experimental works, and is regarded by the British opera-going public as having equal status with Britten’s works for the stage. The plot can be summarized as follows. On the night before Christmas a stranger appears unannounced at the castle of King Arthur. The visitor is the Green Knight, who challenges the court to seemingly unequal combat. He offers to accept a blow from his axe to his head on condition that he may inflict a similar blow in a year and day’s time. Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the stranger. However, the Green Knight gets up again straight away, reminding Gawain of his obligation, before leaving as mysteriously as he had appeared. After a year has passed Gawain sets out for the castle of the Green Knight in order to defend his honour. But the long journey becomes a process of self-discovery, at the end of which Gawain recognizes that he is not the same person he was before he set out.
At the express wish of the composer Harsent has accentuated some of the ritualistic aspects of the Old English legend of Gawain in his libretto: the Green Knight announces his appearance at the gate of the castle by knocking on the door three times, Gawain rests for three nights at the court of Bertilak and his seductively beautiful wife, and at his second encounter with Gawain, the Green Knight raises the axe three times to strike the deadly blow before the action takes a surprising turn in the penultimate scene of the opera. Just like the series of concurrent moments in the action (the seduction scenes of Act Two are paralleled by hunting scenes) or corresponding events (Gawain’s departure from Arthur’s court and his return), these repetitive structures mirror Birtwistle’s compositional technique, which explores the meaning of time in music, always exhibiting other means of expression than have been used previously. Birtwistle and his librettist thus repeatedly turn time upside down in Gawain in order to return to an earlier moment in the action and to retell parts of the story again but with different means. Against the background of subtle changes in the textual and musical structure a kaleidoscopic texture of action arises, inducing the audience – without confusing it – to constantly reassess what it has heard and seen.
In dispensing with opera’s traditional canon of forms and conventional techniques of composition Birtwistle has created in his Gawain a work of timeless modernity whose merits have been described as follows by a British critic: “Gawain marks a climactic point in Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s output, combining dramatic strategies from his four earlier stage works with a clearer narrative than any of them and drawing together aspects of his musical language that he had been exploring in concert works for 15 years or more. It is, I think, his finest dramatic work so far, an opera of compelling power and grandeur.”
Mark Schulze Steinen
Translated by Sophie Kidd