ENO’s Pilgrim progresses via Death Row

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Vaughan Williams, The Pilgrim’s Progress: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). London Coliseum, 5.11.2012. (JQ)

Pilgrim/John Bunyan:  Roland Wood
Evangelist/Watchful/First Shepherd:  Benedict Nelson
Obstinate/Herald/Lord Hate-Good:  George von Bergen
Interpreter/Usher/Mr By-Ends/Second Shepherd:  Tim Robinson
Timorous/Lord Lechery/Messenger:  Colin Judson
Pliable/Superstition/Celestial Voice 1:  Alexander Sprague
Mistrust/Apollyon/Envy/Third Shepherd:  Mark Richardson
First Shining One/Madam Wanton/Voice of a Bird/Celestial Voice 3:  Eleanor Dennis
2nd Shining One/ Branch-Bearer/ Malice:  Aoife O’Sullivan
Third Shining One/Cup-bearer/Pickthank/Woodcutter’s Boy:  Kitty Whately
Madam Bubble/Mrs By-Ends/Celestial Voice 2:  Ann Murray

Director:  Yoshi Oida
Set and Video designer:  Tom Schenk
Costume designer:  Sue Willmington
Lighting designer:  Lutz Deppe
Choreographer:  Carolyn Choa

Vaughan Williams worked on his Bunyan-inspired ‘Morality’ – he was very specific in calling it that rather than an opera – for nearly three decades from the 1920s. It was first staged at Covent Garden in April 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain, when the music was well received but the production was not liked. Since then it has never received a professional staged performance in the UK until this ENO staging. Instead, the gap has been filled either by productions wholly or partly by amateurs – especially the celebrated Cambridge University production of 1954, conducted by Boris Ord in which a student baritone by the name of John Noble took the role of Pilgrim – or by semi-staged accounts.

Despite the lack of professional productions no less than three recordings have been available. Richard Hickox made a superb recording for Chandos in 1998. Before that, there was a live recording of the 1992 staging undertaken by the Royal Northern College of Music, conducted by Igor Kennaway. To my lasting regret I missed seeing that production but the recording attests to the fact that it was very fine. The very first recording – a superb one, strongly cast – was made by Sir Adrian Boult and was issued in 1972 to mark the centenary of RVW’s birth. I came to know and love the work from that recording and for some forty years since then I’ve hoped to see a staged performance but the nearest I’d come to it was a memorable semi-staged account in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, conducted by Hickox in 1997. So this evening at The Coliseum was a long-anticipated event for me.

ENO made an unexpected choice of director for this work by this most English of composers. The 79-year old Japanese actor and director, Yoshi Oida, has worked a good deal with Peter Brook and has already directed a number of operas including Britten’s Death in Venice. A couple of weeks ago I read in the Daily Telegraph a most interesting interview with Oida, undertaken by Rupert Christiansen, who has long campaigned for a professional staging of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Oida explained that his staging would be set in a prison, taking his inspiration from the fact that John Bunyan had written his allegory while twice incarcerated in Bedford gaol for his religious beliefs for most of the period 1660 – 1672. Oida explained that his production would be set “within a prison, but not a very solid one. This is a prison where the walls move and the doors open, a prison which changes its character and identity – because the story is a dream, Bunyan’s dream, and he tells the story with the help of other prisoners. But we [the production team] don’t want to be tied down to that concept, and there will be no sense of any single historical period in the setting. There is room for imagination.” There was indeed room for imagination in this thoughtful, if somewhat controversial staging.

As this production unfolded it seemed to me that Oida had also, perhaps, taken two further strands of inspiration. One was RVW’s comment, in a 1948 letter to Steuart Wilson at the BBC that the work “is more of a ceremony really than a drama.” There was a good deal of ceremonial or ritual in this production, though this was usually subtle and never overdone. The other was a further comment by the composer, this time in a 1951 letter to Rutland Boughton, explaining why he’d deliberately not labelled Pilgrim as a Christian: “I want the work to be universal and apply to any body who aims at the spiritual life whether he is Xtian (sic), Jew, Budhist (sic), Shintoist or 5th day Adventist.” So we saw a number of non-Christian references in this production, including Zoroastrian fire purification at the end of Watchful’s nocturne and the placing of Pilgrim within a protective circle of salt during the confrontation with Aplloyon. I thought most of this worked very well.

The physical side of the production was pretty sparse – by intention. With one glaring exception most of Sue Willmington’s costumes were deliberately drab and anonymous, as might be worn by convicts. When the chorus, and others, were to be transformed from the guise of convicts into more beneficent beings – for example during the House Beautiful scene – this was achieved through the simple but effective expedient of having them place white stoles round their necks. The one occasion when significantly more colourful costumes were in evidence was during the Vanity Fair scene. The sets comprised several drab blocks with cell bars on top. These were moved around as the action demanded so that the scenery could represent a prison cell, the King’s Highway or whatever else was required. Again, most effective. The impact of the costumes and sets was enhanced significantly by the imaginative and entirely effective lighting by Lutz Deppe.

One innovation of the production was to combine the roles of John Bunyan, who appears in the Prologue and Epilogue, with that of Pilgrim. In my experience of Pilgrim’s Progress the roles have been sung by different singers. However, as Pilgrim is Bunyan’s alter ego, the combination makes dramatic sense and it worked well in practice.

The performance was given with a single interval, after the Vanity Fair scene (Act III scene 1) and within these two halves the action flowed seamlessly. I thought that in the first half the production was pretty convincing. The confrontation with Apollyon, which can’t be easy to stage, was managed as a puppet fight. The huge figure of Apollyon, a suitably monstrous creation, was manipulated visibly on stage and while Pilgrim sat within his salt circle, a small puppet, again manipulated on stage, did battle with the monster, as it were by proxy. An ingenious solution. Earlier, the House Beautiful scene was wonderfully imagined and, like so much else during the evening, superbly choreographed. Here was dignified, subtle use of ritual and it worked brilliantly.

The Vanity Fair scene was a riot of colour and raunchy vulgarity. Some of the costumes paraded by the cast – and their lewd gestures – would have made Cabaret look like a sedate tea party. Most eye-catching of all was the 50/50 costume sported by Lord Lechery (Colin Judson). Half of him – his left hand side – was decked out as a top-hatted old roué and the other half as a vulgar old tart. The entire mis-en-scène depicted evil and excess and was as successful as it was way over the top.

Through all this the prison thread ran convincingly. After the interval, however, I thought the production lost its way at times – or, rather, the prison theme was stretched further than Bunyan’s allegory could sustain. Thus in Act IV scene 1 I wasn’t entirely convinced when the Woodcutter’s Boy (the excellent Kitty Whately) appeared as a lady dispensing gruel to convicts from a tea trolley. Things became more strained in the Delectable Mountains scene. Here, after he has parted from the Woodcutter’s Boy, Oida has Pilgrim re-arrested and thrown into the condemned cell. He is visited by the three Shepherds, who are dressed as a lawyer, a priest and a doctor, plainly making the pre-execution visit to the condemned man. This seems rather at odds with the traditional role of the Shepherds, who give Pilgrim refreshment, encouragement and, as it were, one last push on his journey to the Celestial City. I suppose it could be argued that this is what’s the three Official Visitors are doing in this production but I do think it’s stretching the point.

However, where I’m afraid I part company with Oida’s vision is in his treatment of the dénouement. The Messenger who greets Pilgrim is, in fact, the Head Warder who gets Pilgrim to sign the form for his execution. Then instead of Pilgrim crossing through the deep waters to the other side of the river to reach the Celestial City he mounts the stairway, is trapped into an Old Sparky electric chair and is executed. This seems to me to be completely at odds with Bunyan’s allegory – or RVW’s view of it. In Bunyan’s tale Pilgrim reaches the Celestial City through his efforts and fortitude. In Oida’s version he is despatched by the forces of evil. The citizens of Vanity at least think they have vanquished him. Perhaps it was this misconception in the production that expained why I didn’t feel moved – as I always have done when listening on CD – by the wonderful chorus, the apotheosis of the tune York, with which Pilgrim is welcomed home. It’s such a pity that a production that promised – and, earlier on, had delivered – so much should have gone off the rails at the end.

Despite any reservations about the production there can be no equivocation about the musical side of things. This is a triumph – and for no one more than Roland Wood as Bunyan/Pilgrim. It’s a huge role – he’s onstage almost continuously – but his singing was tireless and I found every facet of his portrayal completely convincing. His singing was consistently superb. The musical heart of the whole work is Pilgrim’s great soliloquy from Prison in Act III scene 2. Wood rose to the musical and interpretative challenges of the long scena magnificently: this was the high point of a gripping portrayal. The supporting cast, most of whom take two or three roles, is very strong indeed. Benedict Nelson enhances his growing reputation with a splendid performance as Evangelist and he was very impressive also in Watchful’s nocturne. In a variety of roles Timothy Robinson was outstanding, not least as a marvellously obsequious and malevolent Usher in the Vanity Fair scene. He also portrays Mr By-Ends. I’ve always felt this scene is a weak part of the score – though I understand why it’s there. However, Robinson’s splendidly comic portrayal made me enjoy this scene very much – as did an equally entertaining cameo from Ann Murray as Mrs By-Ends. I should also applaud the entire cast for the clarity of their diction: surtitles were helpfully provided but were largely superfluous

Besides Roland Wood the other hero of the evening is Martyn Brabbins. Long an admired conductor of English music, here he more than justifies that reputation. I thought his pacing of the score was flawless from start to finish and he secured top quality playing from the ENO orchestra. Boult, Hickox and Kennaway have all been notable exponents of this wonderful score and now Martyn Brabbins assuredly joins their company. He’s to head the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan from next year: we must hope this won’t restrict his appearances here in the UK. And if the orchestra made a magnificent contribution to this performance so too did their colleagues in the chorus. Whether as convicts, Apollyon’s Doleful Creatures, the depraved citizens of Vanity or the heavenly hosts in the Celestial City their singing was tremendous, as was their physical participation in the production.

Despite my reservations over aspects of the production – much of which I admire, however – this was a memorable evening. It’s a matter for great regret that this wonderful, visionary score by one of our greatest composers has had to wait over sixty years for its second professional production in the UK. However, ENO has now made handsome amends to Vaughan Williams and has made the long wait worthwhile. I hope they will keep The Pilgrim’s Progress in the repertoire and revive this production before too long. Six performances remain in this run and Vaughan Williams devotees should make every effort to see it.

John Quinn