Gawain is an opera by the British composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle to a libretto by David Harsent based on the medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was commissioned by the Royal Opera House, London, and first performed by them on 30 May, 1991.
It is Christmas at Camelot, and the knights of Arthur's court, along with the Bishop and the fool, are gathered for the celebration. Also present, but invisible to the rest, are Morgan Le Fay and Lady de Hautdesert, who are conspiring to bring down Arthur.
Arthur is bored; he asks for someone to demonstrate their courage. Instead, the fool sets series of identity riddles, while Morgan Le Fay promises him entertainment soon enough. A knock is heard at the door, but when opened there is no-one there. After another riddle, the knock is heard again, and as before the door opens to reveal no-one. It is only the third time that the doors open to reveal the Green Knight, who rides into the court.
The Knight insults Arthur by enquiring which member of the court is king. Arthur's knights rush to avenge his honour, but the Green Knight rebuffs them. He is not dressed for combat but brings instead a challenge to anyone who will accept it. He will accept a blow from his axe that will sever his head, on condition that he may inflict an identical blow in a year and a day's time.
While the Bishop chants protections from witchcraft, the court is confused by the offer. The Knight insists on its terms: 'I must bow my head and bare my neck to take the cutting-edge. I must not turn aside or duck the blow.' He declares that he has come in search of a hero, someone brave enough to take up his challenge. He continues to insult Arthur and the court by declaring that they lack the courage. Arthur is about to accept the challenge when Gawain takes the axe. They agree the terms, and the Knight kneels before Gawain.
The action cuts at this point, and when the scene is revealed we have returned to the point directly before the Knight's first entrance. The action repeats, much compressed and without the discussion. The still unseen Morgan Le Fay and Lady de Hautdesert sing of their plan, focused on provoking Arthur's vanity The Knight once again kneels before Gawain, who now decapitates him.
Instead of dying, the Knight continues to live. The body picks up the head, which now gives Gawain his instructions on where to come for the return blow. Gawain must travel to the north, to the Green Chapel, the instructions echoing as the Knight rides out of the court.
Arthur tries to down play the event, claiming that is was all a mummers play. But the axe has been left, and is hung on the wall for all to see.
The act ends with an abstract representation of the passing of the year. The court prepares Gawain for his travel and ordeal as the seasons pass. He is provided with armour, as the Bishop blesses the venture. Through it all, Morgan Le Fay continues to chant her one line: 'Now with a single step , your journey starts'. In the first edition of the opera, this passing of the year took over half an hour to perform; the second version substantially reduced that duration.
The act opens with a new vision on Gawain's year of preparation. This time he is alone, taunted by the (still invisible) Morgan Le Fay. This time it is Gawain who has the repeated single line: 'Cross of Christ, save me!' He sets off on his journey north.
The scene shifts to the home of Bertilak and Lady de Hautdesert. They are awaiting Gawain's arrival, singing lines of text drawn from Morgan Le Fay's taunting. Gawain arrives, but must knock three times before they answer the door. Bertilak and his wife welcome him warmly, pleased to have a guest from Arthur's court for Christmas to teach them of genteel court customs. Gawain refuses, saying that he must travel until he finds the Green Chapel. Bertilak informs him that is lies not two miles from where they are already, so that he may rest contented that his journey is almost over.
Gawain is to view everything in Bertilak's home as if it were his own. When he states that his wife will keep Gawain company while he himself is out hunting, Bertilak is struck with jealousy and suspicion. On the verge of revealing the charade, he offers a pact with Gawain. Bertilak will spend each day out hunting, and will give Gawain whatever he has acquired from the day; in return, Gawain is to give Bertilak whatever he has gained. Confused over quite what he could gain, Gawain nevertheless agrees to the pact.
The following day, while her husband is out hunting, Lady de Hautdesert comes to Gawain's private chamber. She attempts to seduce him, commanding him to take her. As a knight, this puts Gawain in a severe dilemma; on the one hand, he must obey the commands of a lady, on the other, he should not commit adultery. As he tries to avoid her pursuit of him, finally kissing him, Bertilak kills a stag.
Bertilak returns with his catch, giving it to Gawain. In return, Gawan kisses Bertilak. Bertilak wants to know how Gawain came by such a trophy, but Gawain insists that this was not part of the bargain.
The next day repeats this scenario. Again Gawain is hunted by the lady, who this time kisses him twice; again Bertilak kills his quarry; again Bertilak and Gawain exchange trophies, this time entailing two kisses.
The third day continues much as before. Lady de Hautdesert intensifies her seduction of Gawain, dressing skimpily. Gawain is helpless before her, mutely accepting three kisses from her. Then she offers him the sash around her waist, indicating that while he wears it nothing can possibly harm him. Mindful of his ordeal later that day, Gawain accepts it. Bertilak kills his fox, and returns home. However, at the exchange, Gawain kisses Bertilak three times, but mentions nothing of the sash. Gawain has made his choice.
Gawain departs from their home and travels to the Green Chapel. Here he meets the Green Knight. We hear him from offstage, calling out Gawain's name exactly as he did when he left Camelot a year earlier. Gawain sings of his fear, but kneels ready to take the axe blow. However, he ducks away as it comes down. The Knight is angry, demanding to know if it is truly Gawain he is dealing with. Gawain prepares for another swing, but this time the Green Knight stops short. This time it is Gawain that is angry, demanding that the Green Knight keep the pact as agreed. He may not be the hero everyone thinks he is, but the Knight should not have pity on him.
The knight swings the axe a third time, this time merely grazing Gawain's neck with a superficial wound. Gawain is angrier still. The Knight explains that his actions have been in response to Gawain's treatment of Bertilak. Twice Gawain was scrupulously honest, but the third time he withheld the sash. 'I cut you for that untruth, but didn't kill you; it wasn't greed or love that made you lie, but fear of death – not sin enough to die for'.
Gawain is not mollified. He demands the Knight take the sash. But the Knight reties it around Gawain, sending him back to Camelot. 'Go back, take what you've earned; go back, take what you've learned.' Morgan Le Fay removes the enchantment that disguised Bertilak as the Green Knight. Her purpose has been served, for she has revealed the hero for the sham that he is. His real journey is about to begin, as he must come to terms with the 'greed, self-love and cowardice' he has demonstrated.
The scene shifts to Camelot, much as the beginning of the opera. Arthur again wants to see a display of courage, and the fool responds with riddles. There are knocks at the door that reveal no one present, until the third time Gawain enters, his identity obscured by his great coat and the snow. Once they know who it is, the court is overjoyed and want to hear his tale of heroism. Gawain retorts with an insult to Arthur. As the court settles down, consoling themselves that 'all is as it was, with nothing changed', they help Gawain remove the garments they gave him at the end of Act 1 for his journey. But Gawain continues angry with their presumption that he has been victorious. 'I'm not that hero', he continues to proclaim. The Court is alienated by him, and the opera closes with Morgan Le Fay singing of the discord she has sown in Arthur's court.
It is only in these closing scenes that the action of the opera deviates from the original ballad. The emphasis here is on the flawed hero, revealed to be fearful for his own life and willing to lie and deceive in order to keep it.
The plot of Gawain is ideally suited to Birtwistle's approach to musical structure. The repetitious structure of events can be paralleled with a repetitious musical structure. Thus the three hunts in Act 2 use the same musical material, as do the three seductions. The music is varied and adapted every time it is heard, but inner coherence is easily established. The synoposis also indicates many points where recurring motifs are heard: trios of door knocks; the return to the Arthurian court at the end of the opera with the same mood of boredom seen at the beginning; the members of the court gradually recovering from Gawain the items they gave him at the end of act 1. Thus, though the opera is not written with many explicit numbers (i.e. the arias and ensemble pieces characteristic of Classical opera), nor with strongly defined leitmotif in the style of Wagner, there is an overall unity of musical material. There are many occasions when one character will simply repeat one line of text always set it to the same melodic phrase, but this is not the same as using a leitmotif. It does, however, fit well with Birtwistle's standard style of continual variation in the midst of repetition.
The conductor Elgar Howarth has arranged the orchestral suite Gawain's Journey from items in the opera.
Gawain, The Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Elgar Howarth, with François Le Roux in the title role (Collins Classics, CD70412). A recording of the life performance of the second edition given at the Royal Opera House on 20th April, 1994.