Gwyneth and the Green Knight (2000)
Opera for family audiences in 2 Acts (55 + 45) with a libretto by Martin Riley
Music: Lynne Plowman | Words: Martin Riley
Cast: Gwyneth: soprano, Morgan le Fay/ Lady Bertelak: mezzo-soprano, Gawain: tenor,
Arthur/ Ma Ogre: baritone, Father/ Lancelot/ Pa Ogre: bass baritone,
The Green Knight/ Lord Bertelak: bass, Mordred/ Anselm/ Baby Ogre: boy treble

Ens: fl(pc); ob(ca); hn; tr; trb; 2pc; hp; 2vn; va; vc; db.
Commissioned by Arts Council of England (libretto) and Stephen Arlen Memorial Award (music). First performances in Wales (Brecon, Bangor, Cardiff, Mold, Swansea) in April 2002 by Music Theatre Wales. Revived in 2003 for performances at the Royal Opera House (Linbury Studio), London and on tour across England and Wales.
British Composer Award winner in 2003

New and preferably young audiences are the opera world's Holy Grail, so a work that helps to demystify opera while reworking Arthurian legend is in itself a neat conceit. Music Theatre Wales's Gwyneth and the Green Knight, receiving its premiere at Brecon, was a typically elegant piece of stagecraft. Composer Lynne Plowman and librettist Martin Riley have created a fun piece, not called opera but "a musical adventure".

With some inspired subverting and romancing, the medieval tale of Sir Gawain becomes that of Gwyneth, a peasant girl who dreams of being a knight. Gwyneth runs away from home and gets taken on by Sir Gawain as his squire, hence her part in the encounter with the Green Knight, not to mention with ogres and a unicorn. When Gawain turns out to be a wimp, it is noble Gwyneth whose bravery and feminine intuition win the day.

Using just seven voices and 13 instrumentalists, Plowman and Riley juggle fantasy, slapstick and storytelling with panache. The nine scenes bowled along at a cracking pace, while the caricature King Arthur, seductive temptress Morgan le Fay, her mischievous choirboy son Mordred and the Green Knight, whose preferred game is "like conkers with heads and axes", were playfully depicted. Sinead Pratschke was the vocal embodiment of sweetness and ardour in the role of Gwyneth.

The work's ultimate success lies in its appeal on different levels: as an imaginative work in its own right (with layers of symbolism and psychological insight for those who want to look), and as a blueprint for accessible opera. But since Plowman's style here is unashamedly eclectic, it is also a witty musical romp, with references to everything from medieval carols to Parsifal and Salome. The Green Knight's beheading was just one of lighting designer Ace McCarron's brilliant sleights of hand and it was gratifying to find MTW lavishing as much care on this staging aimed at young people as on its classic contemporary work. Between them, director Michael McCarthy and conductor Michael Rafferty conjured up magic to rival Merlin.

The Guardian Tuesday 16 April 2002 (Rian Evans) ****

Nestling amid Welsh lambs and rolling Beacons, Brecon has a new theatre. Theatr Brycheiniog, styled like an old malthouse and sited by its own canal basin, is as bewitching a venue as any in the principality.

The new auditorium with bright acoustics made a swell backdrop for a perfect new opera. Music Theatre Wales is invariably excellent; this show excels. Gwyneth and the Green Knight, newly commissioned from Lynne Plowman, is one of the nattiest new British operas in years. Plowman belongs with Judith Weir, Sally Beamish and the brilliant women composers' band whose achievements makes patronising redundant.

Gwyneth who? Like the footballing Asian lass with a yen to play for England in Gurinder Chadha's Bend it Like Beckham, Gwyneth is a societally incorrect, besmocked peasant wench who yearns to join King Arthur's Round Table. Disguised as a feller, she gets hired as Sir Gawain's squire and proves a far better bet than him. Enlisting the aid of the intermittently headless Green Knight and the ghastly boy Mordred, she routs Morgan le Fay and wins her fiefdom from the grimacing, knock-kneed Arthur (Richard Suart).

Is this adult opera, children's adventure or pantomime? The Greeks had a term for it. Once a trilogy's worth of Oresteian, Oedipean or Trojan blood had flowed, they tacked on a fourth "Satyr" play, a spoof sending up the whole grisly tale. Slot Birtwistle's Gawain - Plowman's jingly score actually has quite a bit in common with his works - into John McCabe's ballet Arthur, append Gwyneth, and you have a classic Attic tetralogy. This was opera without concessions, for everyone. A six-year-old adored it; so did a sprightly septuagenarian.

Why so good? Well, Plowman's brilliantly illustrative music - pointillist brass, bristling strings, quizzical percussion, mocking pizzicati - never falters. Add Martin Riley's pithily funny rhymed libretto and you have another Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are.

The cast is one to kill for. Suart has a classic huff-and-puff role as a useless "not me, luv'" Arthur; Charles Johnston launches the show ringingly as the bluff father who wants his Malory-fed lass to marry the local cowhand. The tenor Ashley Catling is not so much Gawain as Paul Merton at the Round Table. Sinead Pratschke is made for Gwyneth, doubly disarming when she reveals her Viola secret to save her master. Richard Wiegold's ho-ho'ing Green Knight is John Tomlinson meets Graham Chapman. Kathryn Turpin and James Taylor as Morgan and a vicious chorister Mordred are deliciously appalling.

Simon Banham's designs plus props-maker Laura Martin's paraphernalia seemed perfect; Ace McCarron is a genius with the lighting. Gwyneth is a smash-hit for MTW's gifted two Michaels, director McCarthy and conductor Rafferty. Shoo it across the border soon, please.

The Independent Tuesday 16 April 2002 (Roderic Dunnett)

Titles can be crucial; Jerry Springer: the Opera alone has put Battersea Arts Centre on the operatic map. But Lynne Plowman's first opera is much more than just a catchy title - it is one of the most brilliantly accomplished new operas I have heard for many a year.

For a start it is genuinely funny, at times laugh-out-loud funny, and operatic comedy is the trickiest of all genres to master. It is ostensibly written for children, but as in Hansel and Gretel and Britten's works for youngsters, it has real musical substance to engage and reward adults. Proof in the eating: at Music Theatre Wales' premiere last Thursday, an audience of all ages was hanging on every word, every note, especially as the programme quite rightly printed only a sketchy synopsis.

You had to listen, and wanted to. The libretto is by Martin Riley, greatly experienced in children's drama, and he tells the story with as anti-heroic tone as Birtwistle's take on the Gawain epic. But the protagonist is Gwyneth, a peasant's daughter who leaves home in her father's clothes, and longs to be a knight of the Round Table. Prudently changing her name to Gareth, she is taken on as squire by Gawain, characterised as a likeable prat. King Arthur, Lancelot (a less likeable prat), Morgan le Fay, her mischievous son Mordred (treble, an angelic choir-boy when first seen, but soon going to the bad), the Green Knight, all are there, but Gwyneth/Gareth is nearly always one step ahead, saving the situation time and again. She is revealed as a girl half way through, a masterstroke, since for the rest of the opera the male adults have to come to terms with this. No sloppy Happy End: Gawain, who has learnt a thing or two and become less of a prat, sponsors her reception as a Knight, no more.

Plowman's score, in no sense written down to children, hovers between modern and Post-Modern. She doesn't scorn pastiche, which is always useful in comedy: there's some mock-medieval, and a Bernstein big Tune or Two. And lots of really beautiful music, including a melancholy aria for the abandoned Father and a Lament for the dead (actually not) Gawain, which sounds like Monteverdi realised by Britten.

Occasionally she lets her determination to move on get the better of her: there's a lovely little duet for Gwyneth and Gawain with solo violin but it only lasts for a handful of bars.

It should be thrice as long. Problems? Only moments of over-scoring for chamber orchestra; writing for soprano in the middle register accompanied by brass is not too good an idea. Words went missing.

Plowman could not have enjoyed a better premiere production. The director Michael McCarthy exercised iron control over the humour, and there was never any danger of it slipping over into cuteness. Sinead Pratschke (Gwyneth ) and Ashley Catling (Gawain) are as good actors as they are singers. Steffan Lloyd-Evans was a wicked Mordred, Kathryn Turpin an alluring Morgan le Fay, Richard Wiegold a thunderous Green Knight. Fine conducting (Michael Rafferty) and design (Simon Banham).

This enchanting show is touring to Cardiff, Mold and Swansea for the next ten days only. It must be revived at once, and given far wider currency.

The Times Tuesday 16 April 2002 (Rodney Milnes) ****