Tuesday, 6 November 2012

ENO The Pilgrim's Progress Ralph Vaughan Williams

The ENO production of The Pilgrim's Progress is a historic moment. This is what the ENO should stand for - pioneering good opera in English. This justifies the whole premise of the ENO philosophy.  For sixty years, The Pilgrim's Progress has suffered under the mistaken assumption that it is somehow "unstageable". Yoshi Oida and the ENO prove, indisputably, that it can be brought to vivid life and be restored to its deserved place in the repertoire. As Bunyan sings "This book will make a Traveller of thee". The "end" of the opera is just the beginning.

The Pilgrim's Progress  is a remarkable work that defies classification. Do not approach it as conventional opera, or you'll miss its fundamental originality. Vaughan Williams hiumself called it a "Morality", not quite a morality play in the medieval tradition, but much more sophisticated.
Approach it from  an oratorio background and you're on stronger ground. Yet Vaughan Williams was adamant that it was "essentially a stage piece, and not for a cathedral". These considerations are important, for they affect the way the Pilgrim's Progress can be staged. Vaughan Williams wasn't happy with the 1951 Covent Garden production., but I think he'd be pleased with Yoshi Oida's staging for the ENO because it blends Bunyan's steadfast beliefs with Vaughan Williams's distinctive artistic personality.

The Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory, progressing in ritual stages as spartan as the militant non-conformist Protestantism that inspired it. The action evolves in the Pilgrim's soul as he visualizes his journey. Thus the bizarre names of those he meets, like his neighbours Pliable, Obstinate, Mistrust and Timorous. They are not real people but symbols. Oida and his designer depict them holding banners, alluding to the illustrations in typical 17th century religious tracts. Lord Hate-Good and Pontius Pilate are meant to be caricatures, as Bunyan's readers knew their Bible word by heart and understood how it applied to The Pilgrim. Perhaps modern audiences don't make quite the same connection between the Pilgrim's fate and that of his Lord, but again that is absolutely fundamental to meaning.

Bunyan was a non-conformist independent at a time of extreme religious intolerance. He wasn''t  Establishment, he wasn't dutiful Church of England.  He came from peasant stock and probably spole with a broad Midlands accent. Vaughan Williams is making a very specific point by explicitly framing the opera with references to Bunyan and later The Pilgrim in prison. It is not stylistic licence on Oida's part but fundamental to meaning. Furthermore, it's not simply a matter of poet in prison, but the concept that mankind is imprisoned until freed by spiritual awakening. The Pilgrim cannot attain grace unless he dies in faith. Oida's Pilgrim dies in the electric chair. Bunyan refers to a river of death. Electricity is a flowing current, so death is a quick transition, fitting well with Vaughan Williams's musical setting. Visually, the image is powerful because it also suggests the idea of sitting on a throne in judgement, for like God, Bunyan condemns the venal. "If this man cannot stand before the judgement of men, how shall he stand before the judgement of God?" Oida also show the river in a film projection above the stage, a detail which reinforces the depth of his interpretation.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was not Bunyan. He affirms Bunyan's basic principles but moderates them with his music.  RVW's glorious interludes add radiant lyricism, conducted by Martyn Brabbins so that the radiance is almost overwhelming.  Brabbins's understanding of RVW's idiom is profound, sharp and never sentimental. RVW's "pastoralism" isn't bucolic fantasy but "pastoral" in the wider meaning of the word, ideally suited to this piece with its implicit message of faith in the Good Shepherd. The Pilgrim sings" I will walk in the name of the Lord, my strength", and the colours in the orchestra illuminate the words, as if the Lord is walking invisibly with the Pilgrim. RVW's Interludes tell the story so vividly that the orchestra provides much of the drama the text alone eschews. In House Beautiful, the Pilgrim listens to angelic voices "Music in the house, music in the heart, music in heaven".

There are many references to Vaughan Williams's other music, especially the Fifth Symphony, since he laboured over The Pilgrim's Progress for many years. Indeed, The Pilgrim's Progress can e read as Vaughan Williams own spiritual journey. He put his failth in music, not in God. Listen to the entr'acte before the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, where the melody is bathed in the simple light of solo violin reminiscent of The Lark Ascending. Oida's staging captures RVW's music with remarkable sensitivity.  The prison paraphernalia (designed by Tom Schenk) moves swiftly, respecting the momentum of the music. Glowing colours of copper and amber, verdigris and subtle shadow : natural earth tones that reflect the music and also the idea of organic change that runs through the whole piece. This is why The Pilgrim's Progress is infinitely improved by visual images.  Most of us have grown up with audio versions. Now my love for this work is enhanced by recalling this production.  Even when Oida slightly  controversially uses film images of  First World War trenches to contrast with "God's straight highway", he is referring to RVW's career. Indeed, RVW seems to have made the connection himself, given the strident trumpet parts that accompany the text. That war was a watershed (his "river"?) for him and he did not forget.
This is a much deeper production than one might expect. It is an infiniutely greater homage to the composer than the superficial  ENO Riders to the Sea, or well meaning but limited productions of Hugh the Drover. Oida might even make The Poisoned Kiss work nicely.

Martyn Brabbins is another reason for catching this production, sharper than Adrian Boult, livelier than Richard Hickox. This should be immortalized on DVD.  It would create a new market, especially for those who don't as yet appreciate RVW.  Roland Wood sings both John Bunyan and The Pilgrim, but combining the roles means he is singing for hours on end. It's more conducive to stamina than finesse. A beautiful voice isn't necessary in an opera about a tough minded anti-materialist. It's enough that Wood can to carry it off convincingly, especially considering that there are several other British baritones who would have been outstanding. Wood is valiant, but he's young and doesn't make his ROH debut until 2014. He's worth hearing again, though. Some of the finest singing occured in the minor roles.  Several excellent vignettes - Eleanor Dennis (especially as the Voice of the Bird), with Kitty Whateley and Aoife O'Sullivan, Timothy Robinson, Mark Richardson,  and many members of the cast and chorus in Vanity Fair.

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