Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

The new Queen of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.

Falstaff at Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Gothic Schubert : Wigmore Hall, London

Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.

Rusalka, AZ Opera

On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.

First new Ring Cycle in 40 Years, Leipzig

Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.

San Jose’s Beta-Carotene Rich Barber

You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.

Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden

If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.

Fierce in War, dazzling in Peace: Joyce DiDonato at the Concertgebouw

Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.

Simplicius Simplicissimus

I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.

Lucia di Lammermoor at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Akhnaten Offers L A Operagoers Both Ear and Eye Candy

Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.

Shakespeare in the Late Baroque - Bampton Classical Opera

Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

The
10 Nov 2012

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress

After a slow, long period of gestation, commencing with a short dramatization at Reigate Priory in 1906 and spanning more than 40 years, the first performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress took place at Covent Garden on 26 April 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The “Vanity Fair” scene [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of English National Opera]

 

Oft criticised for its lack of dramatic shape, it has taken a similarly long of time for this meditative, visionary opera, or ‘Morality’ as the composer termed it, with its patchwork libretto drawn from Bunyan’s allegory, the Psalms and other biblical texts, to receive a subsequent theatrical hearing: indeed, ENO claim that this is the first fully staged professional production for 60 years.

Director Yoshi Oïda and his designer Tom Schenk present us with a sombre vista: distressed buttress-like doors topped by metal cages, which twist and reconfigure in flexible combinations to suggest the infinite, labyrinthine corridors of incarceration. Bunyan does not leave his prison, but his dream enables him to escape physical confinement through spiritual liberation and transcendence, and Vaughan Williams indicates this in a Prologue and Epilogue in which Bunyan is seen in his cell, his back bearing a weighty burden. Further developing this frame, Oïda compels his Pilgrim to wander ceaselessly through various prison chambers, accompanied by fellow prisoners who become first his accompanying pilgrims and later the doleful creatures of the Valley of Humiliation and the lecherous debauchees of Vanity Fair. As the staging is shifted and turned, a thickly encrusted backdrop of deep ochres rising to smoky turquoises is momentarily revealed, like a Renaissance fresco. It is perhaps a glimpse of more ethereal worlds; but, elsewhere Oïda and Schenk offer few visual consolations and put their faith in Vaughan Williams’ radiant score to communicate the inspiring force of Bunyan’s dream and transport us to higher realms.

In Acts 1 and 2 the music certainly fulfils this task. All of Vaughan Williams is contained within this richly self-allusive score: the majestic dignity of the Sea Symphony, the dissonant conflicts of the Fourth, the meditative contemplations of the Fifth, the gentle pastoralism of the Third and Flos Campi, the spiritual consolations of the Serenade to Music. Conductor Martyn Brabbins conjured from the ENO orchestra music of epic grandeur and sweep, and of tender, diaphanous beauty. The opulent brass chords which chime out the opening psalm-tune modulated to a more mysterious, profound choir of trombones underpinning the arrival of the Evangelist. Similarly, the flashing trumpet fanfares which jubilantly herald the King’s Highway suggested hope for the world to come. The Evangelist was sung convincingly and with calm composure by Benedict Nelson, who subsequently, in Watchful’s Intermezzo between Acts 1 and 2, ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’, conveyed the peaceful simplicity of the monadic baritone line.

Oïda makes interesting use of the aesthetic concepts of Japanese theatre, drawing on the stylised gestures and ritualism of Noh and Kyogen. In a striking coup de théâtre the Pilgrim wields a bunraku miniature of himself to defeat the giant monster Apollyan — which rises like a gargantuan tower of rotting detritus from the deep, topped with a garish gas mask — as his howls (resonantly intoned by Mark Richardson) mingle with the doleful cries of the inhabitants of his oppressive realm.

The stark contrast of the immediately succeeding scene is first disconcerting then reassuring. The discordant orchestral turmoil is salved by soothing harp and strings, heralding the arrival of Two Heavenly Beings, sung by Kitty Whaley and Aoife O’Sullivan, whose simple lyricism relieved and comforted the Pilgrim with Tree of Life and the Water of Life.

Sadly, both musical and dramatic momentum flagged in Act 3 and 4. Vaughan William’s musical idiom is less varied here, perhaps because fundamentally there is no real dramatic conflict: the Pilgrim’s struggles are essentially internal, philosophical. Having backed minimalist visual intervention, Oïda stuck to his guns, but at times the result was bland and monotonous.

The rot actually set in (and the low point was reached) in the Vanity Fair episode. The scene presents unfortunate echoes of the ‘progress’ of Stravinsky’s Rake, but Vaughan Williams’ music lacks Stravinsky’s wit and sensuality, and the sharp satire of Hogarth and Auden is entirely absent. Stale, derivative and ultimately neither shocking nor sensuous, Oïda’s clichéd staging of a realm riddled with transvestism and endemic hermaphroditism certainly provided a visual contrast but was bizarrely incongruous with the world and ‘meaning’ of the rest of the opera. Faced with a parade of Cabaret copies and gyrating fairground grotesques it was not surprising that Pilgrim did not find himself tempted.

In Act 4, woodwind and horns conjure a restorative pastoral serenity, and the mood of tranquillity was enhanced by the song of the Woodcutter’s Boy, ‘He that is down need fear no fall’, sung with sweet composure by Kitty Whately — and repeated at the close with touching instrumental counterpoint by clarinet and viola. But, although the Delectable Mountains can be seen on the horizon, the promised end to the Pilgrim’s journey is still some distance away! There is little musical connection between this passage and the next, marked by the arrival of the comical duo, Mr and Mrs By-Ends, and Oïda made no attempt to provide organic visual or dramatic threads.

Indeed, throughout Oïda relished disparity, combining realism and period authenticity with symbolism and eclectic historical and cultural references. This heterogeneity was sometimes jarring. In a ritual robing at the start of his quest, the Pilgrim is dressed in seventeenth-century breastplate and helmet but arrested by English soldiers in the uniforms of WWII. When the Evangelist blesses the Pilgrim at the end of Act 2, he gives him the Roll of the Word, the Key of Promise, and a staff —the latter, here, a gent’s 1930’s umbrella. Such juxtapositions may serve to emphasise the universality of the work; but, a sense of embracing cohesion was diminished by the precise and increasingly frequent allusions to the world wars of the twentieth century — a tiny screen projected film footage of the war — in the aftermath of which the opera was first performed. Thus, in the closing moments, Eleanor Dennis as The Voice of a Bird, clutches an outsize white feather, which then transmutes into the white quill with which the Pilgrim’s death warrant is signed: is he accused of cowardice? And, the electric chair with which the Pilgrim is threatened in Vanity Fair is the medium of his final transfiguration: placed aloft, mid-stage, are we to imagine it is the gate to Heaven?

This work needs a baritone protagonist of considerable prowess and stamina — the Pilgrim is on stage throughout almost every scene — to provide dramatic focus and, in this particular production, to hold Oida’s disparate parts together. Fortunately it has one, in Roland Wood who, from slightly uncertain beginnings grew in musical and dramatic stature, reaching rapturous heights in his Act 3 aria, ‘Show me the way, O Lord, teach me Thy paths’, his progress culminating in a wonderfully moving final aria which shone with emotional intensity. There was an outstanding performance too from Timothy Robinson, who engaging adopted an array of disparate guises.

Forced into camp cliché in the Vanity Fair scene, the ENO chorus were nevertheless in outstanding voice: they relished the rhythmic vigour and nobility of the setting of ‘Who would true valour see’ that interpolates the dialogue between the Herald and Pilgrim in Act 2; and the exultations of the heavenly chorus, bathed in blinding light, of the closing moments were enrapturing.

There is no doubt of the sincerity of Vaughan Williams’ expression of humanity’s search for spiritual redemption. But, this production provided little evidence that the composer was correct in his insistence that it should be staged in the theatre, and not presented as a sort of church pageant or oratorio. Oïda invites us to view the allegorical events through the contextual prism of modern conflict; but then scatters a host of, admittedly sometimes imaginative and suggestive, visual allusions, which dilute the concept. The static qualities of the work are in fact deepened, not allayed, by the minimal set and frequent wide open expanses, as well as by the intermittent ritualistic gestures and motions. Ironically, perhaps a counter-intuitive visual radicalism might have been more effective.

That said, in addition to its ‘rarity value’, this production is worth catching for Roland Wood’s performance which communicates both human fallibility and divine holiness, and is complemented by the unfailing commitment and sensitivity of the whole cast.

Claire Seymour


Cast and Production:

Pilgrim/John Bunyan: Roland Wood; Evangelist/Watchful/First Shepherd: Benedict Nelson; Obstinate/Herald/Lord Hate-Good: George von Bergen; Interpreter/Usher/Mr By-Ends/Second Shepherd: Tim Robinson; Timorous/Lord Lechery/Messenger: Colin Judson; Pliable/Superstition/Celestial Voice 1: Alexander Sprague; Mistrust/Apollyon/Envy/Third Shepherd: Mark Richardson ; First Shining One/Madam Wanton/Voice of a Bird/Celestial Voice 3: Eleanor Dennis; 2nd Shining One/ Branch-Bearer/ Malice: Aoife O’Sullivan; Third Shining One/Cup-bearer/Pickthank/Woodcutter’s Boy: Kitty Whately; Madam Bubble/Mrs By-Ends/Celestial Voice 2: Ann Murray.

Conductor: Martyn Brabbins; Director: Yoshi Oïda; Set and Video Designer: Tom Schenk; Costume Designer: Sue Willmington; Lighting Designer: Lutz Deppe; Choreographer: Carolyn Choa.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):