Professional performances of English operas are rare – they always have been – and it is presumably the 60th anniversary of The Pilgrim's Progress specifically that has prompted this 2012 revival. It seems that without a significant anniversary to justify blowing the dust off a score, English operas tend to lie unheeded – the exception of course is Benjamin Britten. Even so, if these seven ENO performances are simply a timely nod to one of England's best loved composers, their arrival is welcome. Premièred in 1951 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Vaughan Williams' Pilgrim has subsequently made several journeys; staged at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1994, and at a number of concert performances. Additionally, at least two complete recordings have been made: one by Adrian Boult and the other by Richard Hickox. The work itself is curious; almost 30 years in the making, it is an opera, but not an opera – Vaughan Williams preferred to call it a "morality", leading us to suggest Parsifal as a possible predecessor. Based on John Bunyan's allegory of the same name, the action and dramatic flow of the work is slow, static, laboured. Filled out with biblical excerpts and verses by Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer compiled the libretto himself.
The crux of the story, at its most basic, revolves around the imprisoned John Bunyan, under sentence of death, finishing his Pilgrim's Progress – a book about his dream in which a Pilgrim (taken by the same singer), sporting a heavy burden on his back, is directed towards the Celestial City by an Evangelist. Facing a number of character-testing obstacles along the way, his burden is relieved, and he arrives safely at his destination. The music, overflowing with RVW's typically rich orchestration, is extraordinarily spacious, presenting the listener with an endless sky and an open road – given that the work is a journey, indoor performances almost seem to inhibit the grand openness of texture found in the orchestral writing; an outdoor performance would create an incredibly vivid perspective unobtainable in the confines of an opera house orchestra pit. RVW's score, however, is undeniably idiosyncratic, bearing all his pastoral trademarks; even a 1951 audience might have considered it old fashioned.
Despite the deliberate suggestions of trudging through the great outdoors on a journey to salvation, director Yoshi Oïda chose to focus on the captive element, and the whole opera was laid out inside a fictitious prison. This unfortunately did not wash with me; prison is deliberately suffocating and the vast expanses pictured in the text and score were squashed beneath the iron scaffolding of Tom Schenk's set design, further impeded by video installations of WWII footage whose purpose escaped me. Setting the action in the prison also removes the distinction between Bunyan and his imagined Pilgrim (there should at least be a convincing costume change), whose vivid journey is supposed to be terrifyingly fantastical. The production is bleak from start to finish – even the gaudy, bawdy Vanity Fair where one may purchase all manner of soul-destroying ephemera, from kingdoms to carnal pleasure, seemed underwhelming; men in drag, grinding lewdly with tasteless semi-nudity as a visual representation for a moral-less society is now a cliché. The Pilgrim's final moments are seated in an electric chair as a blast of white light momentarily blinds the audience before they're returned to Bunyan at his cell desk, with the complete manuscript of his dream before him. Ultimately it is an individual's interpretation, but I don't see how such a wild reading of the plot, yielding a restrictive and unsympathetic production, could speak to a wider audience.
Musically the orchestra played well; under Martyn Brabbins' direction the score was excellently paced with fine-tuned orchestral balance sustaining infinitely more dramatic weight than the production. The brass and strings in particular were gloriously warm, with Vaughan Williams' more typically light and pastoral writing delicately handled by the woodwind.
Vocally the performance lacks a little dramatic projection; regardless of theological influence, this is an opera and not an oratorio, but Roland Wood as Bunyan/The Pilgrim sang well, with a direct, declamatory baritone. The rest of the cast comprises a great number of minor parts, taken by singers doubling or even tripling up. Dame Anne Murray and Timothy Robinson for instance each assume several small parts, not one of which really does justice to singers of their calibre –younger singers robbed of the opportunity to gain operatic experience, rather than dragging in "a name" simply to make the cast list look more impressive.
I can't deny a tinge of disappointment, but the piece is well worth hearing before it's shelved for another 60 years.
Premiered during the 1951 Festival of Britain, Vaughan Williams’s sublime ‘morality’ charts the trials, tribulations, temptations and revelations that Bunyan’s questing Pilgrim encounters on his physical and spiritual progress ‘from this world to that which is to come’.
Staged by revered Japanese actor-director Yoshi Oïda, a veteran member of Peter Brook’s Parisian theatre company and a past master of telling simplicity, this new production is conducted by Martyn Brabbins, whose passionate belief in British music was last revealed at ENO in his ‘grippingly urgent and muscular’ (The Guardian) account of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time in 2005.
London ColiseumSt. Martin's Lane
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 4ES
ENO Chorus in Vanity Fair 2 with Colin Judson (Lord Lechery) centre © Mike Hoban
Roland Wood (Pilgrim) © Mike Hoban