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Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 2 )
Gawain • Harrison Birtwistle

Harrison Birtwistle • Gawain

Detail - click to see entire picture.
All production photos above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Ruth Walz

How to Explain Opera to a Dead Hare

Now with a single step, your journey starts…

One of my main reasons to attend the Salzburg Festival this year was the promise of Harrison Birtwistle’s opera Gawain (more pictures here) staged by Alvis Hermanis. Birtwistle’s symphonic synthesis of the work, Gawain’s Journey, heard in Munich (review here), was more than enough to entice me: “[This] symphonic extraction [has] a lush and literal score, much like a newer version of Bartók’s Bluebeard… [The] beguiling, flavorfully dissonant orchestral music goes down very easy: full of dramatic and descriptive color, through with the underlying opera shimmers at all times…”

Two overwhelming acts later, I must now back-paddle my enthusiasm boat a bit. There was still a good amount left of the beguiling, flavorfully dissonant orchestral music, but it decidedly did not go down easy any longer. It didn’t, because of the length of the work, each act’s last 30 minutes of which felt like they should have been dispensed with in ten. It didn’t, because of the strident, abrasive writing for the voices. It didn’t, because of the repetitive and dramatically less-than-compelling libretto. And it didn’t, because of Hermanis’ dark and often dreary and yet more often tangential production. These combined factors seemed to leach the music of its nuanced delicacy in the strings, the dark warmth of the brass, the colorfulness of the assorted idiophones and harp to the far right, and the pounding, striking brutality of the percussion section to the far left—all of which was admittedly there, courtesy of the splendid ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra (once again a credit to Austrian music-making beyond the mere custodianship of tradition) under the vital and efficient leadership of Ingo Metzmacher.

Here’s the challenge – one of you
Must swing the axe at me.
I must bow my head
and bare my neck to take the cutting-edge.
I must not turn aside or duck the blow.

“I must bow my head… I must not turn aside or duck the blow.” That’s what the Green Knight says to the Knights of the Round Table, a good third into the first act. And although I didn’t know then, I would come to empathize with that sentiment over the next few hours. Not that there was a sense of anger after leaving the Felsenreitschule, exhausted, some three and a half hours after entering. Nor even one of disappointment, although disappointment would have been easy to explain. It was more a sense of being overwhelmed and drained… but not in the good sense… not in that emotionally overpowering way that audiences left last year’s Die Soldaten with (review here). I felt blunted—an experience shared by many audience members, veterans and contemporary-newcomers alike.

The production cannot have helped in that regard—not, admittedly, that it’s the director’s principal job to help me overcome naïve expectations. It starts out promising with the disembowelment—in full sight—of one of the ruffians of Arthur’s round table. Three huge, percussion-immune doggies feast on the entrails, and the rest of the post-apocalyptic mutant knights share in the feast of offal, too. That’s not for everyone, but except for the cannibalism part, I can sympathize from a culinary point of view. A bit of tripe every once in a while—Act 1, if necessary—can add texture. But when the Green Knight shows up and asks to have his head chopped off (a task which the strapping Christopher Maltman cum Gawain cum Joseph Beuys obligingly executes), Hermanis pulls back in the graphic depiction department, and does a rather pathetic, entirely bloodless fake chainsaw action, and Gawain lifts a loosely attached Green Knight’s head off a peg on the rump.

This is the moment that waited for you
as you journeyed towards it.
This is the moment you carried with you
from the worst dream.

Speaking of Joseph Beuys: Where Hermanis’ direction and stage design and Eva Dessecker’s costumes don’t depict a post-Chernobyl dystopia on the left (representing ex-Civilization/Christianity) and Life After People images of overgrown cars on the right (representing Nature/Paganism), it’s a vast animated Joseph Beuys exhibition that they put on display. Until Christopher Maltman—dressed to look like the German genre-bending visual artist—finally pipes up that it is he who would like to trim and prune the Green Knight down to size, he slinks around in a re-make of “I Like America and America Likes Me”. (Younger generations might think of hooded Ewoks being evoked, instead.) One of the dogs acts the part of the coyote. He—Maltman, not the dog—readies himself, golden-faced, for his trip to meet the Green Knight for their revenge-rendezvous in what is a replication of “How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare”. When he sets about his journey, he takes the sleds, rolls of felt, and torches, and recreates “The Pack”… to take the three most notable examples. And if I didn’t understand the convulsing Zombie-striptease of the extras, replete with concluding mud-bath and looped, spastic gyrations, it could well possibly my lack of familiarity with Beuys that I couldn’t place it.

Hermanis writes in the program notes that the events in the opera remind him of Beuys “and his life-long endeavor towards the unity of mankind and nature.” “Beuys always seemed to me to be the only possible ambassador which the world might be able to dispatch in case of a visit of creatures from outer space. The Gawain of the opera displays many similarities with this artist: both want to unite worlds, both experience the corruptibility of man with their own bodies, both have knowledge of failure and find themselves to be their own legends already during their lifetimes…” There’s undoubtedly depth to this, but that does not mean the production looks or feels more insightful than if Hermanis had simply hoisted his personal interest in Beuys onto stage, with Birtwistle’s opera as the convenient enough excuse to do so. An intriguing diversion amid all the Beuys—and also a distraction from the music—was the series of lengthy projected eye-witness video clips from the March 11, 2011 tsunami that hit Japan (this one, among them.)

Go back, take what you’ve earned;
Go back, take what you’ve learned.
Go back…

Despite the dominance of the vocals over the music, the singers paled beneath all that which was piled up around them. John Tomlinson’s Bertilak/Green Knight was regal with warmth—but just like every other singer, he was forced to force a music out of his body that had little obvious emotional resemblance to the text he was singing or the situation in which he found himself in. That’s true, also, for Christopher Maltman, who was immediately impressive, and instantly forgettable. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, the wheel-chair bound, moribund King Arthur, howled nicely; Brian Galliford’s Fool did as instructed, and screeched and snarled; the Bishop Baldwin (counter-tenor Andrew Watts) piped appropriately uncomfortably… But ultimately none could be properly judged for the quality of their voice—only for the commitment of their presentation. Only the three ladies were a little luckier: Jennifer Johnston’s Lady de Hautdesert, with her unwanted advances on poor, scandalized Gawain, remained melodically above the fray. Gun-Brit Barkmin as Guinevere, King Arthur’s gun moll, clawed herself some moments of vocal sanity out of her unpleasant surroundings, and Laura Aikin as Morgan le Fay—the character that comments on the action from beginning to end—sang her part like a high-pitched latter-day Erda. Too bad that their efforts—including the chorus’ effort—were so awfully difficult to appreciate.

They looked for someone glorious
with wounds and trophies.
I’m not that hero.