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

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

Full-throated Cockerel at Santa Fe

A tale of a lazy, befuddled world leader that ‘has no clothes on’ and his two dimwit sons, hmmmm, what does that remind me of. . .?

Santa Fe’s Trippy Handel

If you don’t like a given moment in Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alcina, well, just like the volatile mountain weather, wait two minutes and it will surely change.

Santa Fe’s Crowd-Pleasing Strauss

With Die Fledermaus’ thrice familiar overture still lingering in our ears, it didn’t take long for the assault of hijinks to reduce the audience into guffaws of delight.

Santa Fe: Mad for Lucia

If there is any practitioner currently singing the punishing title role of Lucia di Lammermoor better than Brenda Rae, I am hard-pressed to name her.

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen at Grimeborn

Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can be a difficult opera to stage, despite its charm and simplicity. In part it is a good, old-fashioned morality tale about the relationships between humans and animals, and between themselves, but Janáček doesn’t use a sledgehammer to make this point. It is easy for many productions to fall into parody, and many have done, and it is a tribute to The Opera Company’s staging of this work at the Arcola Theatre that they narrowly avoided this pitfall.

Handel's Israel in Egypt at the Proms: William Christie and the OAE

For all its extreme popularity with choirs, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt is a somewhat problematic work; the scarcity of solos makes hiring professional soloists an extravagant expense, and the standard version of the work starts oddly with a tenor recitative. If we return to the work's history then these issues are put into context, and this is what William Christie did for the performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 1 August 2017.

Sirens and Scheherazade: Prom 18

From Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, to Bruch’s choral-orchestral Odysseus, to Fauré’s Penelope, countless compositions have taken their inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps not surprisingly given Homer’s emphasis on the power of music in the Greek world.

A new La clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne

Big birds are looming large at Glyndebourne this year. After Juno’s Peacock, which scooped up the suicidal Hipermestra, Chris Guth’s La clemenza di Tito offers us a huge soaring magpie, symbolic of Tito’s release from the chains of responsibility in Imperial Rome.

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

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):