It would be fair to say that this is what the English National Opera exists for, putting on works written in English and which would never grace the stage of the Royal Opera House in normal circumstances. Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress has not fared well since the 1951 ROH première, timed to coincide with the Festival of Britain. Seeing this slick production makes one see why it has fallen into neglect. The work is far too static dramatically to make itself good source material for staging.
Oida used a simple but configurable set that owed much to a robust prison aesthetic. The monotonous palette of rusted iron and grey costumes was not original but thankfully was relieved by the orgiastic colour in Vanity Fair. Overall the staging felt well-considered but curiously limp, the overall discipline being at odd with Williams’ chromatic, warm soundworld.
On the night ENO’s orchestra was wonderful under the energetic conducting of Martyn Brabbins. We all know the signature sound of Williams, Brabbins brought all the brightness and golden colour without shlock ruralism (unlike ENO’s fairly twee marketing materials) which tends to be his fate in the wrong hands.
Roland Wood gave a monumental performance, displaying incredible stamina despite the vocal writing not being incredibly beautiful or that varied and weighted down by the archaic libretto. Most of the most characterful writing was saved for the female singers and the chorus and they also delivered in spades. The opening contribution by the chorus was a dreamlike reverie leading to a gorgeous nocturne introducing Act Two. The contributions of the chorus became the backbone of the performance and shaped the action that at times is missing focus due to the plethora of on stage characters. Also Williams’ imagination shines through when writing for cameo appearances such as Lord Lechery, Mister and Madam By-Ends and Lord Hate-Good. Vanity Fair closed the first half of the performance and was exuberant enough musically, despite the obligatory caricatured mammaries and genitals foisted on the singers.
The second half was a much more meditative, spiritual part of the evening. The musical values definitely went higher and the staging had some interesting moments. The subtle use of a square projection screen that was showing footage of WWI trenches that in the end lifted to reveal an array of floodlights that illuminated the auditorium as the Pilgrim crosses the water (in this staging reaching the electric chair on top of a flight of steps) was very effective. I found the metaphor of the chair heavy-handed and not particularly necessary in the context of the work but it did not distract from the luminous score. The finale featuring bells and chorus on and off stage is a thing of visceral beauty, exciting and imposing with a gorgeous eerie presence. Giving the work a metaphysical aftertaste.
Worth noting the beautiful contributions by Benedict Nelson as the Evangelist who added gravitas and suavity, George von Bergen who added a quirky sense of humour. The three ladies: Eleanor Dennis, Aoife O’Sullivan and Kitty Whately who offered delectable singing in a variety of unconventional roles. Also having the opportunity to see Ann Murray in an outfit I could only describe as ‘Carmen Miranda in space’ has to be something to remember!
Overall I could not imagine Vaughan Williams’, almost half a century in the making, Morality, being better served elsewhere and as I left the auditorium realising that he would never be a favourite composer of mine. I knew that this was an evening of music making of the highest calibre. The vivid choral writing and the imaginative orchestration were wonderfully satisfying even if the work itself is a very static piece of theatre. Despite Oida’s attempts to inject movement and drama it strikes me as a truly delectable oratorio.
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