Gawain - Felsenreitschule, 15 August 2013
Harrison Birtwistle's 1990's opera Gawain only made it on to the Salzburg schedule at a late stage, when it became clear that György Kurtág wouldn't deliver his commission on time. That may explain the bizarre production by Alvis Hermanis, which seemed to have been designed for another opera entirely.
The story of Gawain and the Green Knight comes from Arthurian legend. Sir Gawain accepts a challenge to strike a mysterious Green Knight with his axe and take a return blow a year later. Gawain beheads the knight, who picks up his head and leaves. Gawain's honour is tested when he fulfils his side of the bargain.
Hermanis finds something in the story to justify dressing Gawain as Joseph Beuys and re-enacting his famous 'Coyote' action amongst other works. He sets the action in a post-apocalyptic scenario peopled with snarling vagrants. This is more understandable. When the social order has broken down, acts of honour and chivalry take on a different meaning, though Hermanis's further implication of ecological disaster seemed as irrelevant as his Beuys parallels.
The direction seemed very detailed and specific, but by overlaying the story with Beuys references, Hermanis quite literally lost the plot. I was impressed by the projections which made it seem the Felsenreitschule walls were toppling down, less so by the chickening out from the whole beheading business.
Musically, it was excellent, despite (once again) excessive 'audio enhancement' turning every sound into a fortissimo. The ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien became the third orchestra in the week to outplay the Vienna Philharmonic, with the reliable Ingo Metzmacher keeping everything in line.
I cannot imagine the opera being better sung - as you will be able to hear for yourself when much the same cast tackle it at the Barbican next May. There was only one survivor from the original production back in 1992 - Sir John Tomlinson as the Green Knight, thankfully displaying less of the bluster that has marred some of his recent performances. There is something to be said for a tailor-made role. Both he and the excellent Jennifer Johnston deserve a medal for singing the whole thing in moss-covered masks, too.
The title role is tough to make much of until the end, which Christopher Maltman did in his moving exploration of honour and heroism. As the omnipresent Morgan le Fay, Laura Aikin's stratospheric high notes were not overly tested but she made light of some difficult singing. It was good to see Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts back on form as King Arthur, even if he was distractingly wheelchair-bound for most of the evening.