Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Eine florentinische Tragödie and I pagliacci in Monte-Carlo

An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.

Carmen, Pacific Symphony

On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.

San Diego Opera presents an excellent Don Giovanni

On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.

Tosca at Chicago Lyric

In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.

Henri Dutilleux: Correspondances

Henri Dutilleux’s music has its devotees. I am yet to join their ranks, but had no reason to think this was not an admirable performance of his song-cycle Correspondances.

LA Opera Revives The Ghosts of Versailles

In 1980, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned composer John Corigliano to write an opera celebrating the company’s one-hundredth anniversary. It was to be ready in 1983.

La Traviata, ENO

English National Opera’s revival of Peter Konwitschny’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata had many elements in common with the production’s original outing in 2013 (The production was a co-production with Opera Graz, where it had debuted in 2011).

Idomeneo in Lyon

You might believe you could go to an opera and take in what you see at face value. But if you did that just now in Lyon you would have had no idea what was going on.

Der fliegende Holländer, Royal Opera

I wonder whether we need a new way of thinking — and talking — about operatic ‘revivals’. Perhaps the term is more meaningful when it comes to works that have been dead and buried for years, before being rediscovered by subsequent generations.

Iphigénie en Tauride in Geneva

Hopefully this brilliant new production of Iphigénie en Tauride from the Grand Théâtre de Genève will find its way to the new world now that Gluck’s masterpiece has been introduced to American audiences.

Tristan et Isolde in Toulouse

Tristan first appeared on the stage of the Théâtre du Capitole in 1928, sung in French, the same language that served its 1942 production even with Wehrmacht tanks parked in front of the opera house.

Arizona Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Arizona Opera presented Eugene Onegin during and 1999-2000 season and again on February 1 of this year as part of the 2014-2015 season. In this country Onegin is not a crowd pleaser like La Bohème or Carmen, but its story is believable and its music melodic and memorable. Just hum the beginning of the “Polonaise” and your friends will know the music, if not where it comes from.

Ernst Krenek: Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles at the Wigmore Hall in Ernst Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen. Matthias Goerne has called Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch the Winterreise of the 20th century. Boesch and Vignoles showed how Krenek’s Reisebuch is a journey of discovery into identity at an era of extreme social change. It is a parable, indeed, of modern times.

Anna Bolena at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new Anna Bolena, a production shared with Minnesota Opera, features a distinguished cast including several notable premieres.

San Diego Celebrates 50th Year with La Bohème

On Tuesday January 27, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme. It is the opera with which the company opened in 1965 and a work that the company has faithfully performed every five years since then.

English Pocket Opera Company: Verdi’s Macbeth

Last year we tracked Orfeo on his desperate search for his lost Euridice, through the labyrinths and studio spaces of Central St Martin’s; this year we were plunged into Macbeth’s tragic pursuit of power in the bare blackness of the CSM’s Platform Theatre.

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Béla Bartók’s only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed in 1911 and based upon a libretto by the Hungarian writer Béla Balázs, was not initially a success.

Katia Kabanova in Toulon

Káťa Kabanová is, they say, Janáček's first mature opera — it comes a mere 20 years after his masterpiece, Jenůfa.

Peter Grimes in Nice

Nice’s golden winter light is not that of England’s North Sea coast. Nonetheless the Opéra de Nice’s new production of Peter Grimes did much to take us there.

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):