Concert Review

Birtwistle Gawain. Royal Opera House, 15 January 2000.

Technical teething troubles at the refurbished Opera House had mostly been overcome before the performance I saw of this revival of the shortened version of Gawain, nearly 10 years on since its original premiere, although the sur-titles did fail towards the end. (They are necessary for modern opera in English, despite every possible effort at clear diction, because even when you can hear a sequence of words, the meaning of the whole often remains elusive.) Audiences now don't have time to do intensive home-work, as Bayreuth faithfuls used to in preparing for The Ring.

John Tomlinson as the Green Knight
The lifts and trap-doors worked, so that the Green Knight appeared on cue, and all the computerised effects did as required. John Tomlinson's decapitated head, still very much alive, sang even more strongly than when intact.

One problem is that we are nowadays so engulfed with technical wizardry that we can see through it and find it hard to suspend disbelief. Circles of old-fashioned blue neon light bulbs, upon which characters invisible to others on stage took rides, they looked like - well, circles of neon lights with precarious platforms to carry aerial opera singers. There was a travelator (a form of transport familiar now at airports and London's new Jubilee Line stations) which whisked characters round and round in the changing seasons sequence. Lasers illuminated magical goings on by King Arthur's enemy, Morgan le Fay, and snow scenes on the backdrop unavoidably looked like computer screen savers. Golden, star studded semicircles for the Turning of the Seasons looked tacky I was frankly disenchanted by the whole, hyped paraphernalia of the staging. It was a relief, against all that, to have a nice, friendly pantomime horse and people running around holding horns on their heads or bushy tails behind, to represent stag and fox!

I think mine was an individual response, my reservations not fully shared by my wife, who was fully engaged by the complex pagan and medieval Christian symbolism. Gawain's temptation, and the betrayal with cock crowing, was echoed by pictures of Christ on the Cross, with burgeoning foliage, its colours changing the seasons. Gawain's tribulations and long, hazardous journey terminated with the reciprocal confrontation with the Green Knight after 'a year and a day', and the sparing of his life.

The ritualistic, densely orchestrated music composed to this strange, and only partially comprehensible, scenario made its remembered powerful effect, layered as if it had an independent life of its own. The orchestra is the real protagonist of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's vision. Elgar Howarth controlled his huge forces superbly, and the intensity of some passages was overwhelming. As heard from the back of the newly raked stalls, with their greatly improved sight-lines, the singers had a struggle to compete with the orchestra, and Birtwistle's scoring gave little opportunity for quiet singing. There might even become a need to consider some covering of the orchestra pit for other heavily scored operas too?

The new Royal Opera House is good to visit, with efficient arrangements for tickets and cloakrooms. The mirrored area for interval drinks, spectacularly converted from the Victorian cast iron Floral Hall, is spacious and dramatic.

It will be interesting to sample more normal operatic fare here, and it is intended also to report soon from the new Linbury Studio Theatre and Clore Studio Upstairs in the modern extension.

The massive souvenir programme book is informative and fully illustrated - well worth acquiring. For anyone who wants to crack the mysteries of this essential operatic monument of the last decade of the last century; there is also a highly praised CD recording of this 1994 shortened version on Collins 7041-2; try it, and make up your own mind.

Peter Grahame Woolf






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