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.
Opera it most certainly is (none of his previous stage pieces had that designation), and its magnificent opening gesture immediately promises that it will be an epic one. The First Act ends with the characteristic Birtwistle device of a fivefold cycle of the seasons, symbolically portraying Gawain’s preparation for his confrontation with the Green Knight, while Act 2 turns on a threefold cycle of lullabies, hunting scenes and seductions in which he learns how few of the knightly virtues for which he is famed he in fact possesses. These cyclical structures are not mere machines, nor is the plot a mere pretext for them, as it arguably was in Birtwistle’s earlier work, The Mask of Orpheus. The “Turning of the Seasons” cycle, each part having a light and a dark phase, day and night, each incorporating both solemn ritual and an only apparently jocular riddle from the Fool, is in fact a powerful cumulative metaphor for the peril of Gawain’s quest and its vanity, to which he is as yet blind. Self-realization comes in the second cycle, in which he acts ignobly and is shamed.
Another long-term constituent of Birtwistle’s style is those long, sinuous, ranging lines that underlie so much of his music. The very opening gesture, a craggy descent, is one mode that it adopts here; another is the intense, often ornate, wide-spanning lyricism heard soon afterwards as Morgan Le Fay and Lady de Hautdesert begin their plot to subvert King Arthur’s court with Gawain as their unwitting instrument. Morgan’s lullabies in Act 2, each of them sinking Gawain deeper into enthralment, have a sinister beauty to them that is the very image of witchcraft. Indeed, although none of the characters in this fable is a rounded personality – Gawain is no verismo opera – each of them is boldly and tellingly portrayed. Morgan is unchanging, venom personified. Arthur, too, does not change: an old soldier, bored with peace but unwilling to emerge from the cosy myth of Camelot. But Gawain matures, from arrogance to bitter self-awareness. Most strikingly of all the Green Knight, the opera’s real and profoundly mysterious central character, has music of true lyrical strength and pride at his first challenge, denunciatory eloquence when he spares Gawain’s life at their second encounter, telling him that mere cowardice is too small a sin to die for.
It is an opera whose drama often takes place in the wonderfully rich and strange sounds of Birtwistle’s orchestra: massive, striding bass-lines, whooping brass, the prominent cimbalom at times almost as central as it once was in Stravinsky’s imagination. The solo singers must achieve extremes of intensity to stand out in relief. Among them John Tomlinson is in outstandingly noble voice as the Green Knight and Francois Le Roux, when not obliged to force, is moving in the title-role. Marie Angel is fearless though often bitingly shrill as Morgan, Anne Howells a voluptuous Lady de Hautdesert. The recording brings the voices forward, which helps comprehension of the text, but does not diminish Elgar Howarth’s masterly control of the score’s burnished splendours. The whole enterprise is a huge achievement, a worthy and commendably prompt recording of one of the most powerful operas of the late twentieth century.'