August 8th, 2013
Gawain - Christopher Maltman
The Green Knight/Bertilak de Hautdesert - John Tomlinson
Morgan le Fay - Laura Aikin
Lady de Hautdesert - Jennifer Johnston
King Arthur - Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Guinevere - Gun-Brit Barkmin
Bishop Baldwin - Andrew Watts
A Fool - Brian Galliforf
Agravain - Ivan Ludlow
Ywain - Alexander Sprague
Conductor - Ingo Metzmacher
Direction and stage - Alvis Hermanis
Costume - Eva Dessecker
Lighting - Gleb Filshtinsky
Video design - Multimedia Design Studio "Raketamedia", Moscow
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Avis Hermanis, in the programme note to his new production of Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain at this year's Salzburg Festival, insists that the opera's eponymous hero "displays many similarities" with Joseph Beuys, "one of the most important visual artists after the Second World War."
And that is the reason, Hermanis argues, that some of the most famous works and happenings of the German sculptor, performance, installation and graphic artist are so meticulously re-created on the stage of the Felsenreitschule.
They include Das Rudel (The Pack), Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt (How to explain pictures to a dead hare) and I like America and America likes me.
But if we're really honest, the connection never appears to be anything more than tenuous.
And it is debatable whether Salzburg's international audience is so au courant with their Beuys as to be able to catch all the visual references anyway, let alone make the connection to Birtwistle's reworking of the 14th century Middle English romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Hermanis' premise, as attractive as it might sound, never really appears anything more than an artificial intellectual conceit that leaves much of the audience baffled as to what is going on onstage, at least judging by the brief, albeit friendly applause at the end.
The director's idea, on the other hand, to transplant the action from the court of King Arthur to a science fiction in the not-too-distant future where an ecological catastrophe has wiped out most of mankind is infinitely more compelling.
Against the imposing rock-hewn backdrop of the Felsenreitschule, the magnificent stage set creates an apocalyptic, post-Chernobyl, post-Fukushima world where humans are forced to live like animals, to scrounge and scavenge and even eat each other in order to survive.
We could be on a film set from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris.
Nature is taking hold of the world again, with green moss invading every nook and cranny.
Indeed, for Hermanis the figure of the Green Knight, who appears in King Arthur's court at Christmas to throw down the challenge to Gawain, is "a kind of nature deity ... who wants to offer a last chance to the survivors after the human experiment has failed."
The opulent visuals are a perfect match for the irresistible, primaeval power of Birtwistle's steam-roller of a score, written at about the same time as Earth Dances, (possibly his best-known work outside of the UK).
The choice of Gawain, with its powerful re-telling of Arthurian legend, is also a particularly apt one in the Wagner Bicentenary year, with distinct parallels -- and obvious differences -- to Parsifal.
Maybe it's because I came fresh from Bayreuth last week, but to my ears the hunting horns of Act 2 also had unmistakable echoes of Tristan or Hunding's horn in Act 1 of Die Walküre.
Musically, Salzburg could not have assembled a better cast.
Thanks perhaps to the fact that all but one of the soloists are native speakers, diction was astonishingly clear, even in the cavernous space of the Felsenreitschule.
With vocal writing as fiendishly difficult and vertiginous as this, it would be unfair to single out any one singer for particular praise.
But how much more mellifluous on the ear were the stupendous Jennifer Johnston and Laura Aikin as Lady de Hautdesert and Morgan le Fay than their counterparts on the Collins Classics recording of the original Royal Opera House Covent Garden production.
It was John Tomlinson who created the dual roles of the Green Knight and Bertilak de Hautdesert in that production and he leaves his undeniable stamp of authority here, too, even if the top of his register has gone.
German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin was stunning as Guinevere.
But perhaps most impressive of all was Christopher Maltman in the title role.
His rich baritone, cultivated but never over-mannered, makes him one of a top crop of British Lied interpreters at present.
But he also has an irresistible stage presence and I was lucky enough to catch him when he popped over to Frankfurt recently -- while he was in Salzburg rehearsing for Gawain in fact -- for a couple of guest appearances as Posa in Don Carlo.
The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra was awe-inspiring in its mastery of Birtwistle's highly complex score. But that was hardly surprising with Ingo Metzmacher at the helm.
One can only hope that the performances are being captured on CD.