Dressed as Joseph Beuys, Gawain beheads the Green Knight with a chainsaw. “I am not that hero,” he sings later, as an enormous portrait of Beuys is carted on to the cluttered stage of the Felsenreitschule.
Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain, premiered in 1991 at Covent Garden and revised several times in the ensuing eight years, is an unlikely piece to find at the Salzburg Festival in the year of Wagner, Verdi and Britten anniversaries. Or is it? Gawain is Birtwistle’s Parsifal, a philosophical quest with firm roots in music history and a solid sense of theatrical structure. This should have been a world premiere by György Kurtág, but the composer did not finish his score in time, and Gawain became the lavish stop-gap.
Capitalising on the success of his 2012 production of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, festival director Alexander Pereira again paired conductor Ingo Metzmacher and stage director Alvis Hermanis. The latter, evidently at sea with Birtwistle’s sprawling world of saga and ritual, settled on a transposition to borrowed metaphor. Like Parsifal, Gawain lives in the dichotomy between Christianity and Paganism, and learns through his own moral failure that the world is a complex place. For Beuys the conflict was between nature and civilisation.
Hermanis’s production is a collage of Beuys quotes. “The Pack” (Volkswagen Kombi, sledges, felt blankets and torches) and “I Like America and America Likes Me” (coyote, felt, artist, walking-stick etc) are slavishly reproduced, while the action is set in 2021, after an unnamed global catastrophe – nature’s revenge on mankind, as predicted by Beuys. In a wheelchair, Arthur is king of a rag-bag assortment of cannibals and madmen. In this world, Beuys is a Messianic figure – the artist as redeemer. That makes for imposing images but, as Mark Twain might have said, very dull quarter-hours. Hermanis makes no real attempt at logic or coherence, finds no way of making the work’s many ritualistic repetitions come alive, leaves the chorus off-stage, allows no character development, and adds a gratuitous troupe of twitching supernumeraries. The audience is palpably disengaged.
That is no reflection on Metzmacher, who manages the vast orchestral forces of the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna and the challenges of the Felsenreitschule’s broad stage with admirable control. Under his direction, Birtwistle’s score is strong on hammered emphasis and high-voltage expostulation, structure and allusion. For all his force he never drowns his superb cast.
This is the best line-up of the Salzburg Festival so far. Christopher Maltman is the ideal embodiment of Birtwistle’s baritone anti-hero, while John Tomlinson, for whom the part of the Green Knight was created, is still an utterly formidable performer at the age of 66. His wisely husbanded artistry has its consummate foil in Laura Aikin’s Morgan le Fay. Aikin makes the knotty coloratura and atonal gymnastics of her part sound as effortless as a morning warm-up, adding warmth, musicality and a physicality that almost transcends the absurdities of Hermanis’s helpless stage directions. Jennifer Johnston, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Andrew Watts are luxury choices for the parts of Lady de Hautdesert, King Arthur and Bishop Baldwin; vocally, the evening leaves nothing to be desired. If only Pereira dared to opt for courage instead of caution, an adventurous stage director could have made a real success of the evening.