Tuesday, November 06, 2012
Progress for the Pilgrim
Last week Delius in Wexford, this week Vaughan Williams in London: last night, ENO gave RVW's The Pilgrim's Progress its first fully staged professional performance since 1951.
Like Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet, this is not just a remarkable opera, but a shamefully neglected masterpiece - and by one of "our own" in "das Land ohne Musik". Like the Delius, it is far from conventional; it doesn't do those things we tend to think opera ought to do, although there is no particularly logical reason for the artform to stick to them - in other words, it's light years away from La Traviata. Like the Delius, it is slow and gorgeous, mesmerising rather than melodramatic, exquisitely orchestrated, incantatory in its lines.
Unlike the Delius, though, its high points are its choral writing, its concise, well-chosen words - liberally peppered with extracts from the Psalms and spiced here and there with super-perceptive satire - and its deep, rich spirituality. While the story obviously is Christian, there's a universality to it - much enhanced by this fabulous production - that had me, and others, in tears several times. Vaughan Williams himself moved "from atheism into cheerful agnosticism", according to his second wife, Ursula. His faith, one senses, is music: "music in the home, music in the heart, music in the heavens..." as one particularly glorious passage says. He offers us a score containing a great-hearted warmth and wisdom that can bolster our inner strength in the same way that faith bolsters Pilgrim's. Read this excellent piece by conductor Martyn Brabbins on the opera's history.
Clever, brilliant, inspired ENO, putting this work on now. It's a parable for our times: the polarisation of spirituality versus materialism, and the destruction of the non-conformist who dares to speak his own truth against the corrupt rabble of Vanity Fair. The anguish of loneliness; the glow of beauty that attends support when it appears. And the final mortal terror of crossing over to the beyond.
Director Yoshi Oida offers a production of harsh beauty, simplicity and power. The setting is a prison and Pilgrim's inner journey - in essence, John Bunyan reflecting on his dream - takes him to the electric chair. The imagery is focused, the tableaux striking, the designs - set and videos by Tom Schenk, costumes by Sue Willmington - magnificent and imaginative, haunted by World War I, yet never heavy-handedly so. Apollyon, the ogre, is delivered via a piece of giant-scale puppetry that has to be seen to be believed. Magnificent performances by Roland Wood as John Bunyan/Pilgrim, Benedict Nelson as the umbrella-wielding Evangelist (and more), and vignettes throughout by a superlative cast culminating with Ann Murray herself as Madam Bubble, Mrs By-Ends and one of the three Celestial Voices. Brabbins and the orchestra - which has been possibly at its best ever through this year - give the score an account that is fervent yet balanced, translucent yet heady, drawing out the contrasts within the subtle progressions of emotion and letting RVW speak through with all his radiance.
Go see. Fast. There are only seven performances in total.
On the way home from the theatre yesterday, we heard the news that Elliott Carter has passed away at the age of 103. It's farewell to a remarkable man and creator of very different yet just as immortal music. May he reach the Pilgrim's Delectable Mountains and cross the deep river to peace.