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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.

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