Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1-act opera)

The story begins with the magician Merlin, who takes us back to the enchanted circle of the Knights of the Round Table.

Among these heroes, Sir Gawain excels.  Young, brave, handsome and gallant, he aspires to become the perfect knight - without flaw, without a single stain on his honor. But he is yet to be tested in the challenges of the real world outside the court.

It is New Year's Eve. The knights of the fellowship are celebrating the end of the year. Sir Gawain dances, but the merriment is rudely interrupted by a blast of wintry air that blows open the doors of the great hall.

In stalks a monstrous green Knight, his face covered by a green helmet. His mailed fist brandishes a huge axe. He proposes what he calls a “game”.

He offers to let any one of the knights strike him one blow on any part of his body that knight chooses - on condition that he allows the Green Knight to strike him one blow in exactly the same place a year from now.

No one moves. The Green Knight mocks the Fellowship for their cowardice. Then Sir Gawain steps forward. He has a plan to outwit the giant stranger.

He chooses to strike - not the toe offered by the Green Knight - but his neck. The Green Knight's head falls to the floor. And then, to his horror, Sir Gawain sees the headless torso bend down, pick up the head, and put it back on its shoulders.

The Green Knight leaves, admonishing Sir Gawain to be true to his word and meet him at the Green Chapel a year from now. As a parting shot he says, “You should have settled for my toe.”

The next year passes as quickly as seconds on a clock.

Once more, it is winter. Sir Gawain rides out to find the Knight of the Green Chapel. Soon he is lost. One day, he meets a peasant pushing a wheelbarrow filled with manure. The peasant offers to take him part of the way on condition that Sir Gawain hands over his horse and rides in the dung-filled barrow.

Determined to keep his promise, Sir Gawain submits and is taken for a wild ride which ends on the banks of a raging torrent.

The Peasant disappears, and Sir Gawain sees, in his place, a mysterious cloaked Lady. He asks her for directions to the Green Chapel. She tells him he must cross the river first, and the only way he can do it is by walking in bare feet on the blade of a scythe.

Sir Gawain takes off his armor, and endures the agony of the razor-sharp steel.

Reaching the other side, he finds the Lady waiting for him. She was able to cross by giving his armor to the river.

Once more Sir Gawain asks for directions, and the Lady tells him he must first walk into the forest and duel with an invisible knight, Sir Garlon.

Then she, like the Peasant, vanishes.

Sir Gawain is tempted to turn back but, true to his promise, he goes into the forest, armed only with his sword. Sir Garlon spares his life, but shatters his sword and so, stripped of his horse, his armor, and his sword, everything that made him a knight, Sir Gawain arrives on Christmas Eve at a magnificent castle.

The Lord and Lady of the castle welcome Sir Gawain, give him a sumptuous banquet, tend to his wounds, and tell him that the Green Chapel is very close. Sir Gawain agrees to stay with them until New Year's Eve. Then, over dinner,  the Lord of the castle suggests a humorous bargain.

The next morning he will go out hunting, while Sir Gawain stays home and rests. At nightfall each will give to the other what he has won in the course of the day. Sir Gawain agrees.

Dawn comes. The Lord is out hunting. With her hair loose, and her eyes full of promise, his wife comes to Sir Gawain's bedroom and tries to seduce him. Though sorely tempted, all he will accept from her is a kiss, which he dutifully gives to the Lord at the end of the day, as he promised he would.

Three times the Lord goes out hunting, three times his wife comes to Sir Gawain and each time, true to his code of honor, Sir Gawain gallantly declines her offer. 

But on the third day, in addition to her kisses, the Lady offers him something else - a green scarf which, she says, has the magical power to protect its wearer from any weapon.

At the end of this, the third, day Sir Gawain gives back the three kisses, but he keeps the scarf.

That night, he is in torment. His desire to live has proved stronger than his sense of honor. He has broken his word, betrayed his host, but he cannot bear to give up the scarf. Morning comes.  Full of dread, Sir Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel. Thoughts of his failure, and the mortal danger he is in, crowd into his mind.

At the Green Chapel the Green Knight brings his axe down, once, twice, only to halt his blow each time at the last minute. The third time he completes the stroke, but only scratches Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain leaps up, ready to fight. But now the Green Knight rips off his helmet and reveals himself as the Lord of the Castle with whom Sir Gawain spent the last three days. Out of the shadows Merlin and the Lady appear and with the Green Knight they explain the meaning of the kisses, the three strokes of the axe, and they reveal to Sir Gawain that the scratch he received was to repay him for keeping the green scarf and not giving it up as he was bound to do.

Shaken to his depths, Sir Gawain believes he has failed in his task. He has been a coward and a liar. But Merlin and the his accomplices remind Sir Gawain that he endured much, braved death, did not betray his trust, and kept his word, offering himself to the Green Knight's axe. His one fault was pride, believing that he could be completely perfect in word and deed. That is beyond the power of any man. And so Sir Gawain must learn to forgive his own failings, and to forgive others too when they fail, as they surely will. Having learnt that lesson he will become a man at last, and a better knight.

Brought to life by four actor-singers, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' is a lively introduction to both the Arthurian court and to opera.

Laurel Graeber, The New York Times

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