A rare performance of Vaughan Williams's opera
In the year Vaughan Williams finalised The Pilgrim’s Progress (1952) John Cage asked his musical question 4’33” and Stockhausen’s Punkte was premiered. The juxtapositions are startling – and show how messily multi-layered and unsynchronised music history can be. Composers create their own eras, and move through them at their own, often stately, pace. In the case of Vaughan Williams, his first settings of Pilgrims Progress date from 1906. During its slow development, it imbibed so many facets of his art that it finally stands as a radiant testament to his mystic voice.
Many in the audience at ENO last week will have recalled the profoundly moving semi-staged performances Sir Richard Hickox led at Sadler’s Wells in 2008, so the bar was set high for Martyn Brabbins. He more than met the challenge with an incandescent performance, orchestra and choir on glorious, glowing form. Baritone Roland Wood was a robust but sympathetic Pilgrim, beautifully shaping this long, demanding role. Tenor Timothy Robinson was piercingly eloquent in his many parts, as was soprano Eleanor Dennis, while baritone Benedict Nelson had charisma as the Evangelist but needed a more penetrating tone: the atmosphere of a church acoustic would have served him better…
So, what could an opera stage add? This new production – the first British professional fully staged one for six decades – by Japanese director Yoshi Oïda was keenly anticipated: would he bring fresh illumination and solve the dramatic weaknesses inherent in this sublime ceremonial? In the event, the overwhelmingly warm critical reaction has been ‘in spite of’ not because of the production.
The Pilgrim’s Progress proves peculiarly resistant to directorial input. Oïda’s central idea of a prison is apt, taking us back to John Bunyan’s own situation (he wrote it while imprisoned for preaching at 'unlawful meetings') and the universal prison of our own fears. But Pilgrim’s death in an electric chair jars horribly with the text, being far too specific and too punitive. Some aspects of Noh theatre worked – such as the hideous rag puppet Apollyon – but choreographed hand gestures were a missed opportunity, avoiding as they did all reference to Christian gestures, which would, in this context, have communicated something of substance. The lavishly coutured costumes in ‘Vanity Fair’ lent colour and humour (mezzo-soprano Ann Murray as Madame Bubble was a treat) but verged on cliché. In general, the simplest, most ritualistic scenes – of which there were many - were truest to the naïve poetry of the opera.
What really moved us was a searingly committed performance of Vaughan Williams’s incomparable music. The very absence of chromatic tension in the plangent, open pentatonic scales and mournful Dorian and Phrygian modes may feed into the lack of dramatic tension, but they perfectly articulate a British spirituality, or, at least, a nostalgia for it. Hymn tunes – like ‘Who would valiant be’ and ‘York’ – root Pilgrims Progress in a shared past.
How long this shared past will remain potent is hard to say: I would guess most in the audience were young at a time when even non-religious schools had assemblies and hymn-singing… will future generations connect in the same way with Vaughan Williams’s language? If Pilgrim’s Progress is performed with this level of dedication, with the bare poetry of a morality staging, I think so.
The Pilgrim's Progress is on at ENO until 28 November