Review: The Pilgrim’s Progress – English National Opera

Photo Credit: Mike Hoban

Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress
(ENO, 28th November, 2012, London Coliseum. Review by Rob Edgar*)

This final performance of the current run of Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim’s Progress at the London Coliseum was a triumph. Emotions were high, the performers conveyed the sense not of fatigue, but rather that the previous performances had been a build-up for this final staging.

The work, not seen on a big stage for over 60 years, is based on by John Bunyan’s 17th Century allegory, and traces the testing journey of the Pilgrim (the name was changed by Vaughan Williams from Bunyan’s ‘Christian’ to make the message more universal) from the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City”.

Vaughan Williams had severe reservations about how the public would receive Progress – he took more than 50 years to write it. Rather than packing it with drama and incident, he wanted it to be a “Morality”. Despite the frequent use of psalm tunes and chorale-like themes in the church modes – he had a particular fondness for the phrygian mode – the resonances of the work are more mystical than religious.

The music has powerful symbolism, which clearly influenced Yoshi Oïda’s stage conception (with perhaps an equal debt owed to the transcendental qualities of Japanese Noh Theatre). Tom Schenk’s stage designs provide just the right context of oppression and fear. Violent imagery from World War I was brought to a screen behind the cast. Pilgrim suffers a gruesome death in the electric chair punctuated by a blinding flash of light; but when the opening psalm tune returns triumphantly at the end, the feeling is one of peace and joy. Pilgrim has really progressed.

Nowhere did this symbolism work better than in Act II Scene 2 “The Pilgrim Meets Apollyon”. Pilgrim (played by Roland Wood) is confronted with the ‘Prince and King’ of the City of Destruction. In the music, the theme of Apollyon is strikingly similar to the theme of the Evangelist (they are after all, two sides of the same coin) played by Toby Girling. They are both based on a descending semitone but, where during the Evangelist’s first appearance it is authoritative but not threatening, Apollyon’s version is percussive, dark, aggressive and densely orchestrated. In Bunyan’s book the fight is physical but Oïda places Pilgrim within a protective circle of salt, using a puppet to battle the spirit. It’s a perfect portrayal; the clash is not physical but metaphysical, Pilgrim achieves spiritual growth from deep within.

The musical level achieved was stunning throughout, the orchestra playing with its heart on its sleeve. As the Pilgrim, Roland Wood made sure that every line was packed with feeling. Toby Girling (a last minute replacement for Benedict Nelson) was superb and the Three Shining Ones, played by Eleanor Dennis, Aoife O’Sullivan and Kitty Whately (who later returned as the Woodcutter’s Boy) were particularly arresting: first singing in unison, then splintering into uplifting three-part harmony. Their three highly individual voices, their different timbres and personalities coalesced superbly.

Yoshi Oïda as director, a disciple of Peter Brook, has thought deeply and written extensively about the craft of the actor, and how it differs from real life. The actor on stage portraying sadness, he has written, will also, necessarily, feel triumph when he is able to find and express the right emotion to portray that sadness.

Drained yet elated as they returned for the curtain call, the cast gave exactly that sense of having both experienced emotional ups and downs of the work deeply, and of having portrayed them with accuracy and truth. In doing so, they have made the case for Pilgrims Progress to be revived, and very strongly indeed.

(*) Note: This review by Rob was intended for publication at a classical website.

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