The Pilgrim’s Progress is a fine achievement by British Youth Opera at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2023 [4] – Vaughan Williams, The Pilgrim’s Progress: Soloists, British Youth Opera, Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Charlotte Corderoy (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 24.7.2023. (JQ)

The Pilgrim’s Progress (Vanity Fair scene) © James O’Driscoll

I was very excited when it was announced that the 2023 Three Choirs Festival would feature a semi-staged production of Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress. I first came to know and love the work fully fifty years ago through Sir Adrian Boult’s famous EMI recording, issued in 1972 to mark the composer’s centenary. Opportunities to experience it live have been few and far between, though. I managed to see a semi-staged performance that Richard Hickox conducted in Symphony Hall, Birmingham in 1997, in which, as I recall, several singers took part who later featured in his excellent 1998 Chandos recording. I was unable to see the widely praised production which the Royal Northern College of Music put on in 1992, though I subsequently obtained and admired the live audio recording that was issued. At long last, in 2012 I was able to see a full staged production at English National Opera and though I was irritated by some aspects of the production, the musical performance, under the expert baton of Martyn Brabbins, was excellent (review).

This performance was mounted by British Youth Opera. I have not previously encountered the work of this organisation. I recall that they put on a staged production of  Vaughan Williams’ opera Sir John in Love in 2022 and I was encouraged by the very positive review which my colleague Claire Seymour wrote for Opera Today.

This is a key work in Vaughan Williams’ output; the composition occupied him for a very long time – for three decades, from the early 1920s until its first performance in 1951 – and it blends several different aspects of his style. VW was very precise in describing Pilgrim’s Progress as a ‘Morality’ and not an opera. (In just the same way, he was adamant that Job (1930) was ‘A Masque for Dancing’ rather than a ballet.)

The compositional chronology was neatly summarised by Andrew Burn in his programme note. The first significant element in what eventually became Pilgrim’s Progress was the composition of a standalone scene, The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (1920-21); that would eventually become Act IV, Scene 2 of Pilgrim’s Progress. During the 1930s, Acts I and III were written. Material which VW had earmarked for Pilgrim’s Progress was then incorporated into the Fifth Symphony (1943) – but not discarded from the Morality, thank goodness: Pilgrim material permeates the symphony, especially the third movement. During the War, VW wrote the incidental music for a BBC radio play based on The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was broadcast on 5 September 1943 with John Gielgud as Christian. Again, there is lots of material from the Morality in that music. (The radio broadcast, including the music, has been issued on CD by Albion Records ALBCD023/024.) Work on Acts II and IV was done from 1945 onwards; the score was completed in 1949 and received its first performance in 1951 at the Royal Opera House. However, what Burn didn’t mention was that the production was poorly received and it was not until a student production was mounted at Cambridge University a few years later that more satisfactory results were achieved. It is worth mentioning that chronology for two reasons: it shows what a substantial labour of love Pilgrim’s Progress was; also, people familiar with the composer’s output will appreciate how many other works were composed during these years, which helps to explain why we hear so many facets of VW in the Morality.

There are nearly 40 separate roles in Pilgrim’s Progress. Here, the parts were split between 14 singers with most taking two or three roles – among the principals, only Ross Cumming as Pilgrim was not required to multitask. This was a very pragmatic decision: almost all of the individual characters appear only once. In the 2012 ENO production a similar approach was adopted with11 singers sharing the roles and indeed, the roles were mostly allocated in exactly the same way. The one difference was that at ENO the same singer, Roland Wood, sang the role of Bunyan as well as that of Pilgrim. That worked perfectly well, but here BYO opted to give the Bunyan role to Emyr Lloyd Jones and I thought that, dramatically, it was a sensible decision to split those two roles; it also enabled director Will Kerley to make telling use of the two separate characters in the Prologue and, especially, right at the end of the performance.

The space available on the platform clearly imposed some constraints on the semi-staging but I think it also created a few opportunities. The orchestra was unconventionally laid out. The brass was accommodated immediately in front of the tiered seating (where the chorus sat); the woodwind was next to them but mainly over to the left-hand side where the necessarily reduced body of strings were also situated. The percussion was placed on the extreme right of the platform. Conductor Charlotte Corderoy was slightly to the left of the centre of the platform but within everyone’s field of vision. All this created a good degree of usable space in the centre and on the right of the platform; that was where the action took place.

I had one or two minor reservations about Kerley’s production: when Pilgrim has been wounded by Apollyon (their fight was vividly portrayed), the Evangelist and those who assist him in tending to Pilgrim were dressed as World War I army medics. That actually caused a ripple of laughter among the audience. But such minor miscalculations were few and far between. I thought Kerley’s direction was sure-footed and properly respectful to the vision of VW and Bunyan. The Vanity Fair scene was, rightly, portrayed as a vivid display of colourful, wanton excess. I was particularly impressed with the sensitive fashion in which Kerley directed the House Beautiful episode (Act I, Scene 2) and Pilgrim’s meeting with The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (Act IV, Scene 2). And what a relief it was that Pilgrim’s final perilous crossing of the river was imaginatively dealt with, avoiding the ludicrous depiction of Pilgrim’s execution in an electric chair which so marred (for me at least) the 2012 ENO production. At the very end, Kerley achieved something of a coup. Both Pilgrim and Bunyan were onstage and Bunyan embraced Pilgrim once he had reached the safe side of the river. Then, with faltering, exhausted steps Pilgrim made his way down the cathedral’s centre aisle, heading for the Celestial City; it was a moving moment in the drama. So, bravo to Kerley for his direction of the characters throughout the evening. Bravo also to his production team who clothed the characters in intelligently designed, largely simple costumes and furnished them with a limited but very appropriate set of props. It is also important to say that the whole production success was achieved despite the fact that no lighting effects were possible.

The production made me think anew about the nature of the work. VW expressed a strong view that Pilgrim’s Progress should be staged and not performed in churches. (I have wondered more than once if he might have been less firm in that view if he had known how few stagings there would be over the years.) Obviously, a full staged performance is the optimal way to perform the piece but having seen Kerley’s semi-staged production, I would now suggest that, in the right hands, a parallel existence for the work in semi-staged versions as well as full theatrical productions is definitely valid.

I had just one reservation – and this was probably not the fault of BYO – it was a great pity that the action all took place on a single level on the platform. If it had been possible to put an extra platform, just a few inches high, onto the stage that would have helped the audience. I expect those seated in the first dozen rows had a fair view of the action. My own seat was some two-thirds of the way down the nave and whilst my view was distant, at least I could follow some of the action on a CCTV monitor. Those seated in the middle of the nave must have been caught in something of a no man’s land with an imperfect view of the stage and no TV monitors to help (I think fewer monitors are being deployed this year.)

The production, then, was a most convincing one. Happily, so too was the musical performance. It has to be said that rather too often the relatively young singers weren’t able to project their voices with sufficient strength in the substantial acoustic of the cathedral. So, for example, in the Vanity Fair scene, though it was clear that Lord Lechery was being portrayed as the seedy, rakish character that he is, his solo didn’t really carry, at least not to as far back as my seat. In general, the individual parts did not come through with sufficient clarity in that teeming scene, though as the Usher, Matthew Curtis (a late replacement) achieved exactly the right cut-through as he announced the malevolent Lord Hate-Good. I felt that Jia Huang tried too hard to project the character of Lord Hate-Good; the tone was forced far too much; earlier, though, the same singer had been a stentorian Herald in the Arming of the Pilgrim (Act II, Scene 1). Matthew Curtis returned later as the amusing chancer, Mr By-Ends (Act IV, Scene 1) and, even though the scene has always seemed to me to be rather a waste of time, I enjoyed the relish with which he sang that part, suitably partnered by Lydia Shariff as his blowsy wife.

In truth, the female characters have less prominence than the men. I very much liked the attractive voice of Angelina Dorlin-Barlow as the Woodcutter’s Boy (Act IV, Scene 1), even if her words didn’t carry very well. In the Delectable Mountains scene, Issy Bridgeman was the Voice of a Bird. She sang from the organ screen, high up and behind the platform; her clear, pure sound was just right for the role.

Two male singers dominated the performance. I enjoyed very much the singing of baritone Emyr Lloyd Jones in his multiple roles. As Bunyan, he drew us into the drama right at the start with his firm, expressive singing during the Prologue. It fell to him to round off the evening also, delivering the Epilogue, again as Bunyan, with vocal – and physical – dignity and eloquence. I admired the touch of nobility that he brought to the role of the Evangelist and, even more so, his refined singing as Watchful in the Nocturne after Act I, Scene 2. He was also a fine First Shepherd (Act IV, Scene 2). Indeed, in that latter scene we encountered an excellent trio of Shepherds: Matthew Curtis and Armand Rabot made equally strong contributions. Together, the three of them were stalwart, reassuring shepherds who must have given Pilgrim confidence and solace during his encounter with them

Pilgrim (Ross Cumming) brandishing his sword © Dale Hodgetts

In the last analysis, Pilgrim’s Progress stands by the vocal and dramatic stature of the singer in the title role. Here we had Ross Cumming who was in full command of the role and both vocally and physically he was able to portray Pilgrim very convincingly. I especially admired his account of the extended solo when Pilgrim is in prison and fully expecting to be executed by the citizens of Vanity the following morning (Act III, Scene 2). At first Cumming portrayed the despair and anguish of Pilgrim, followed by the exalted resolve once he realises he has the Key of Promise which means he can extricate himself from prison. Cumming was splendid throughout this scene. Elsewhere, he was convincing in his portrayal of Pilgrim’s various trials and tribulations. But whatever obstacles were placed in his way, you sensed that this Pilgrim had the determination to surmount them; in the end his deliverance as he reached the Celestial City was a hard won but deserved triumph. I would like to think that Cumming might get an opportunity to repeat his portrayal one day, perhaps in a fully staged production, but given the fragile state of opera in the UK at present, I am not holding my breath.

The chorus was provided by the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir. This ensemble, whose membership changes every year, is a regular and welcome fixture in the Festival programme but normally they sing in a concert; this was something rather different. The chorus has an important role to play, not least in the Vanity Fair scene and then to greet Pilgrim as he approaches the Celestial City (Act IV, Scene 3). I thought this group of young singers did well. Their commitment was undoubted and they sang with confidence and accuracy. There was a problem, though, concerning the size of the chorus. Thirty-two singers were listed in the programme and given that these are young voices, I think an extra dozen or so voices would have added valuable extra heft. As it was, I didn’t feel that the chorus had sufficient power and presence, though I don’t blame the singers themselves for that; there just weren’t enough of them to project convincingly over a big orchestra in this large acoustic. Nonetheless, the Youth Choir made a good showing this evening. It must have been a thrilling experience for them and I wonder if conductor Charlotte Corderoy thought back to her own time in the Youth Choir. Amazingly, that was less than ten years ago and now here she was, conducting the performance!

I was seriously impressed with her conducting. She clearly knew the music inside out as this was no head-in-the-score performance. Her conducting was clear and incisive throughout the long evening (the performance played for a few minutes over two hours). I noticed a significant number of gestures which indicated on-the-night attention to detail. More than that, though, the sweep of the performance was noticeable. She kept the music moving forward with purpose and, for instance, injected real bite and dynamism into the Vanity Fair scene. She was alive to the poetry as well; the House Beautiful scene – saturated with music that we encounter again in the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony – was beautifully judged. Transitions were smoothly handled and throughout the performance one felt there was a sure hand on the tiller. Just once I wondered about her tempo selection. At the culmination of Act IV, Scene 3, the great Puritan hymn tune ‘York’, first heard at the very beginning, reappears to herald Pilgrim’s arrival at the end of his journey; here I would have liked just a little more breadth and majesty. That, though, was an isolated case. Otherwise, I felt that VW’s score was in very safe hands. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played excellently for her – the way the woodwind parts were given just the right degree of prominence was a special pleasure. When I interviewed Corderoy not long before this performance, her enthusiasm for and excitement about this project was palpable. Now she translated that into reality in a mature and assured performance. Bravo!

But the biggest ‘Bravo’ must be reserved for British Youth Opera. This was a fine achievement by the organisation. We read and hear so much that is concerning about the difficulties currently faced by the Arts in general, and particularly by the musical world, in the UK. A performance like this does not banish such concerns but at least it should give confidence that, with the right support in place, opera can flourish in the UK. Indeed, a performance such as this should make everyone more determined than ever that Arts Council England must up their game and give proper support to the performance of music and that the UK government should properly foster musical education in schools. Tonight, we saw and heard young musicians, full of enthusiasm and talent giving a fine, committed performance. Pilgrim’s Progress was brought vividly to life by all the musicians in a performance that did full justice to the music and to Ralph Vaughan Williams. That is a cause for celebration.

John Quinn  

Director – Will Kerley

Ross Cumming – Pilgrim
Issy Bridgeman– First Shining One / Madam Wanton / Voice of a Bird / Third Celestial Voice
Charlotte Jane Kennedy – Second Shining One / Branch Bearer / Malice
Angelina Dorlin-Barlow – Third Shining One / Cup Bearer / Pickthank / Woodcutter’s Boy
Lydia Shariff– Madam Bubble / Madam By-Ends / Second Celestial Voice
Matthew Curtis– Interpreter / Usher / Mister By-Ends / Second Shepherd
Gabriel Seawright – Timorous / Lord Lechery / Messenger
Zihua Zhang – Pliable / Superstition/ First Celestial Voice
Jia Huang – Obstinate / Herald / Lord Hate-Good
Emyr Lloyd Jones– Bunyan / Evangelist / Watchful / First Shepherd
Armand Rabot – Mistrust / Apollyon /Envy / Third Shepherd
Jonathan Kennedy – Demas
David Corr – Worldly Glory
Michael Roche – Pontius Pilate

3 thoughts on “<i>The Pilgrim’s Progress</i> is a fine achievement by British Youth Opera at the Three Choirs Festival”

  1. I would like to echo resoundingly John Quinn’s eloquent review of the performance – and to assure him that the voices of the young singers were beautifully rounded and clear from my seat in the tenth row of the nave – although I suspect that at the rear of the massive cathedral they (and the chorus) must necessarily have been somewhat submerged in the glorious welter of sound. Also an imaginative and original production, although I felt that the magnificent costume for Apollyon might have been helped with the assistance of amplification (as requested by the composer) for Armand Robot’s essential lyrical and beautiful voice. Congratulations also to his fellow-shepherds Martin Curtis (a marvellous late replacement) and Emyr Lloyd Jones who made the Delectable Mountains into a real highlight of the performance, as well as a Pilgrim of superb quality. Surely this performance must be heard more than just once – the cathedral was packed to the rafters.

    • I am thrilled at the reception given to this production. Having been present at the two Hickox performances in Birmingham and later at Sadler’s Wells with the incomparable Roderick Williams and the musically wonderful (under Brabbins) but ghastly staging at ENO I concur with the reviewers above. This production held its own in every respect with amazing performances by singers, chorus, and orchestra all held together by this exciting young conductor. One slight gripe concerns the gilded angel wings and employment of a CROSS. RVW, may or may not have been agnostic but he did ensure his hero was named Pilgrim in place of Bunyan’s Christian. Congratulations to all concerned.

  2. Yes – an excellent performance. Sitting near the back it was indeed sometimes a welter of sound, but what sound!

    I saw the ENO version (full but disrespectful staging), and have seen two other semi-staged performance (including Sadler’s Wells) and I think the piece will always work best semi-staged, fitting its nature as a series of allegorical tableaux.

    This is my fourth time of hearing the piece live, and each of the previous ones brings special memories – as will this performance.


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