Ralph Vaughan Williams’ take on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has never been staged professionally in the UK since its premiere at the Festival of Britain; the composer fell out of favour for decades after his death in 1958, and the opera’s subject matter also became unfashionable. The piece is immensely difficult to stage, but even so it’s still strange that it has remained obscure for quite so long, for it’s something of a flawed masterpiece.
The opera takes the book’s allegory of a Pilgrim journeying through life, and frames it by seeing him start and end his travels in prison, representing Bunyan himself. The plot takes the form of a series of vignettes as the Pilgrim encounters evangelists and sinners, and has to withstand debauchery. Director Yoshi Oïda’s solution to this episodic and challenging structure is to work each scene around the central motif of the prison.
The rusted gangways and rickety steps of the prison yard form a backdrop to the piece within which a variety of spaces are created. By emphasising oppression (the chorus are dressed as convicts virtually throughout), the production emphasises the harshness of the Christian’s earthly journey and suggests that, like Bunyan himself, the only liberty he enjoys is a spiritual one. Low level lighting splintering across the prison bars intensifies the atmosphere of oppression, but when the cell doors are opened light floods in altering the mood of the piece. There are moments of humour – especially during the battle between puppets representing Apollyon and the Pilgrim, vastly mismatched in size – and moments of searing beauty, particularly when the Porter (Benedict Nelson) sings ‘I will lift mine eyes unto the hills.’
Many of the cast also have an ethereal quality in their voices. In particular, the strong, sturdy sound of Roland Wood as the Pilgrim is tempered by a softness in the back of his throat. The result is a robust voice whose refinement belies the extent of the vocal range required for the part. Benedict Nelson as the Evangelist and Porter, and Timothy Robinson as the Interpreter are also excellent, as are the vocal performances of Eleanor Dennis, Aoife O’Sullivan and Kitty Whately as the Three Shining Ones. Timothy Robinson and Ann Murray display superb comic timing as Mister and Madam By-Ends, bringing a touch of the Gilbert and Sullivan style to the piece.
Anyone remotely familiar with Vaughan Williams’ output may recognise much of the opera’s music, given that he drew from other compositions before the opera inspired further creations, not least his Fifth Symphony. For the most part, it is both angelic and rousing, subtly layering shimmering strings over wind and brass. The choral crescendos and brass fanfares also pack a particular punch under conductor Martyn Brabbins.
There are moments when things seem to go off the boil, especially when Vaughan Williams is being humorous and the music and staging for the lavish Vanity Fair scene, in which the Pilgrim is confronted by every vice imaginable, feels two-dimensional. In contrast, the scene in which the Three Shepherds administer the Pilgrim with the last rites before he is sent to the electric chair, feels out of keeping with the idea of the ageing Pilgrim dying as he reaches the end of his earthly journey. Despite these issues, this remains a rare and exciting opportunity to experience what is, by any measure, a vastly underrated work.