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Pilgrim's Progress first edition 1678
30 Jul 2008

The Pilgrim's Progress at Sader's Wells

The Philharmonia Orchestra has made a far more comprehensive effort than any other British ensemble to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with concerts taking place over the course of seven months in London, Leicester and Bedford including a complete symphony cycle.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim's Progess

Roderick Williams (The Pilgrim), Neal Davies (John Bunyan), Matthew Rose, Richard Coxon, Matthew Brook, Timothy Robinson, Sarah Fox, Sarah Tynan, Pamela Helen Stephen, James Gilchrist, Robert Hayward, Graeme Danby and Philharmonia Voices. Richard Hickox (cond.)


The centrepiece of this season, entitled 'Vaughan Williams: The Pioneering Pilgrim' were two semi-staged performances of the composer's Bunyan opera 'The Pilgrim's Progress' at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre, dedicated to the memory of the composer's wife Ursula who died last year. Conductor Richard Hickox has a real passion for English music, particularly opera, and it was heartening to see him championing such a rarely-performed stage work.

Devised as a depiction of a generic spiritual journey towards enlightenment rather than a specifically Christian one (the composer was an agnostic), the opera (or rather, as it's labelled, the 'morality') is nonetheless rooted in Biblical texts and Christian hymn-tunes. In fact it is reminiscent of Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' in its tableaux of the progression of a soul through trials and tests to its ultimate goal, and thus seems closer to oratorio or cantata than opera, with elements of the pageant and the mystery-play thrown in. In David Edwards' simple semi-staging, movement was kept to a minimum, with most of the more abstract characters moving in a slow, flowing manner as if the motion could be stopped at any moment to create a freeze-frame of an 'event' in the Pilgrim's travels. On the one hand, it is a shame that a full staging was not on offer; on the other, it is a naturally static piece and thus well-suited to this kind of half-and-half incarnation.

The ostensible narrator is John Bunyan, sung here by baritone Neal Davies: though he only in fact appears to frame the piece with a Prologue and Epilogue, it gives the impression that we are seeing everything through his own eyes and imagination. The staging had him discovered onstage as if asleep, ready for his opening line, 'So I awoke, and behold it was a dream'.

The cast was made up of a distinguished inventory of mainly British vocal talent, including most of Hickox's regular collaborators, led by Roderick Williams as the eponymous Pilgrim, and even extending to Hickox's son Adam as the (poorly amplified) Woodcutter's Boy. There were some welcome additions from guest artists in multiple roles, especially the menacing Gidon Saks as Lord Hate-Good (a disembodied voice over a speaker system from offstage). The single scene of sardonic comic relief was delivered with aplomb by Richard Coxon and Andrea Baker as Mr and Madam By-Ends.

Williams's central performance was remarkable; something about his stage persona is both innocent and timeless, and his singing was always assured – despite all the obstacles in his path, the Pilgrim never outwardly falters. His unfailingly beautiful singing was especially impressive in the role's emotional heart – the monologue based around a passage from Psalm 22, when the Pilgrim is in prison expecting death. Part-soliloquy, part-prayer, it is the only time we ever see the turmoil within the Pilgrim's soul before he realises that his means of escape has been within reach all along.

Hickox's conducting had a majesty and beauty which made as persuasive a case for the score as it is ever likely to get, while Philharmonia Voices – the orchestra's ad-hoc professional choral outfit – managed to go from being properly lively and vociferous (in the Vanity Fair scene) to radiantly angelic (in the heavenly passages).

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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