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Wilderness of this world

16 November 2012

Garry Humphreys sees a stark revival of a rarely staged opera


A foul Fiend: Pilgrim (Roland Wood) encounters Apollyon in the ENO's staging of The Pilgrim's Progress

A foul Fiend: Pilgrim (Roland Wood) encounters Apollyon in the ENO's staging of The Pilgrim's Progress

IS THERE a more quintessentially English composer than Ralph Vaughan Williams; or, among his works, a more quintessentially English piece than his opera - or "Morality", as he preferred to call it - The Pilgrim's Progress?

His contemporary Herbert Murrill saw it as "summarizing in three hours virtually the whole creative output of a great composer".

Most of us know this music only from recordings, especially, perhaps, the one conducted by Sir Adrian Boult in 1972, with John Noble as Christian. It was Noble who sang the part in a performance at Cambridge in 1954. In 1951, Covent Garden had given the première, but, shamefully, the current performances at the London Coliseum are the first since then to be fully staged by a professional company.

Why? The large cast, perhaps? Of the 34 solo parts, the composer himself suggested that, with discreet doubling or tripling, the number of soloists can be reduced to 11, as in this production. The potentially static nature of the action? This might have been said of Handel's operas and their preponderance of da capo arias, but this no longer proves to be a problem. Early criticism of The Pilgrim's Progress claimed that it was really an oratorio in disguise, not an opera, a view whose adherents Edward Dent declared to be "mostly stupid and unintelligent".

For this long-awaited revival, the English National Opera has engaged the 79-year-old Japanese actor and director Yoshi Oida, whose operatic experience includes Britten's Death in Venice at the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival, as well as Don Giovanni and The Pearl Fishers, for example. His regular collaborator, Tom Schenk, is responsible for the design.

Bunyan wrote his Pilgrim's Progress in Bedford Gaol, and it is in a prison that Oida has set his production. Yet it is a prison without bars; for, of course, Pilgrim's adventure takes place in a dream, and in dreams anything is possible. As Oida himself has commented, there is room for imagination. With a very mobile set - and an energetic team of on-stage scene shifters - a wide variety of locations are suggested, with back-projection of First World War film in some of the scenes.

It is a characteristic of dreams that the dreamer is the main character in the story, and so in this production the roles of Bunyan and Pilgrim are taken by the same singer (Roland Wood).

Vaughan Williams described himself as a "cheerful agnostic", and yet - besides editing The English Hymnal, Songs of Praise, and The Oxford Book of Carols - he wrote many fine hymn tunes, much church music, and settings of religious verse, such as the Five Mystical Songs, with words by George Herbert.

The Pilgrim's Progress occupied him in different ways throughout his career, beginning with Bunyan's book, and the "noble simplicity" of the English language, shared with the Authorised Version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer, which Vaughan Williams loved.

Vaughan Williams may seem paradoxical in many ways: Wilfrid Mellers has referred to the radical traditionalist, the town-dwelling countryman, the Christian atheist. As Jeffrey Aldridge has written, "it certainly explains why a man who was 'never a professing Christian' [according to his widow Ursula] could write so much music devoted to celebrating Christianity."

The composer once said: "I wanted the idea to be universal and to apply to anybody who aims at the spiritual life, whether he is Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Shintoist or Fifth Day Adventist." This, and Vaughan Williams's deep humanity, no doubt strikes a chord in Yoshi Oida, whose stated aim in directing plays and operas is not the set or even the idea, but how to portray human beings.

But this is a production that you will either love or hate. One distinguished commentator has called it "the most upsetting perversion of a great work by a misguided opera company I have ever seen." I rather like "modern" interpretations of opera, provided that they don't go against the spirit of the original or contradict the text, but this surely works best with music familiar from many years of repertoire performances in a broadly "traditional" manner. I am by no means certain that anyone who has waited sixty years for this would be very happy, and may wistfully recall the wonderful semi-staged performance at Sadler's Wells in 2008 with the baritone Roderick Williams and conductor Richard Hickox.

It has to be said, however, that musically these ENO performances are superb. The radiant and powerful score comes across magnificently, particularly from the orchestra and chorus under the conductor, Martyn Brabbins. But I wonder if the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, which supported this revival, knew what sort of a production it was letting itself in for. I would love to know what Vaughan Williams would say. 

The Pilgrim's Progress by Ralph Vaughan Williams runs at the English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2, until 28 November. Box office: phone 020 7845 9300. www.eno.org

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