Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim's Progress

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 11th November 2012 4 stars

Julius CaesarFrom the grave hymn tune with which it opens to the final radiant fade-out with which it concludes nearly two and a half hours later, Vaughan Williams' final stage work, more oratorio than opera, remains a problematic piece, offering contemporary audiences a Marmite-like choice: will one be transported to musical heaven or languish disconsolately in a drama-free Slough of Despond.

Even its many admirers (amongst whom I'd include myself) have always acknowledged the difficulties inherent in staging The Pilgrim's Progress. The composer hedged his bets, preferring to call it "a morality" though insisting it belonged on the operatic stage. The work's less-than-triumphant debut at Covent Garden in 1951 remained, until this week, its only full staging by a major British company. Hats off, then, to English National Opera for finally taking a brave plunge with this new production.

After all, it's not as if things are any easier now than in 1951. Much of what was once familiar is now at a considerable remove-or a series of removes-in time. Bunyan's allegory is hardly as central to English culture as it was for Vaughan Williams' generation; the libretto's numerous biblical interpolations, then known to all, may be merely mystifying, or unrecognisable, to contemporary audiences; even the work's central notion of a spiritual journey will have been fatally undermined for many by Church scandals, the foam-flecked rantings of Richard Dawkins and the nation's general lack of interest in such nebulous matters as religious belief.

Not that Vaughan Williams was any sort of Bible-basher. His own spiritual trajectory-at least according to him-consisted only of a short stroll from youthful atheism to 'cheerful agnosticism' in old age and went no further. Strange then, but typical of a composer who abounded in contradictions, that he spent the best part of half a century circling obsessively around Bunyan's book, setting portions of it in various forms before completing this, his final opera for the Festival of Britain. But of course, his other preferred texts for musical setting-Whitman, Blake, Herber-reveal a penchant for the unconventionally mystical that rather belies the cosy and commonsensical image of the 'cowpox' composer and his pastoral idylls.

Vaughan Williams himself changed the name of Bunyan's protagonist from 'Christian' to 'Pilgrim' in an effort to make the 17th-century non-conformist allegory something more inclusive and universal, and it's a move that that the Japanese actor-director Yoshi Oida-an inspired outsider choice, for this piece, it turns out-follows, stripping away the text's historical and religious accretions to get at its fundamental question: how can we be free?

Tom Schenk's set-all distressed metal walls, doors and bars-suggests that it's a question that will haunt more than just the prologue in which we see Bunyan himself finishing his book during one of his many stints in jail. In fact, the world-as-prison becomes the over-arching metaphor of the piece as a whole, with Pilgrim's fellow prisoners - wearing drab uniforms and bearing numbers rather than names - bringing to mind the light-starved chorus of Fidelio or the dreaming inmates of Janacek's House of the Dead. We are all prisoners of some kind, Oida suggests, burdened by death and seeking the road that leads from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City; in this instance, though, the solution cannot be either political or even personal and the path must be an inner one.

This journey "in the similitude of a dream" takes in a variety of scenes, seamlessly evoked by the constant (and suitably oneiric) re-alignment of Schenck's set and the transformation of Pilgrim's fellow prisoners into the characters he meets along the way. Much of the journey is, both musically and dramatically, of an unavoidably contemplative nature; there's more ritual than romance on offer here, and the shadow of Parsifal hovers in the background during the House Beautiful sequence, just as Pilgrim watches Oida's stripped-down ceremonial from the side-lines.

The Vanity Fair episode offers a startling contrast: an intense burst of colour and stage bustle, perfectly choreographed and boasting some fantastically garish costumes by Sue Wilmington that match the louche, oily sheen of the music. Effective (and hugely enjoyable) though it is, I couldn't help thinking that the grotesque parade of circus performers, carnie barkers and cross-dressers was rather an unimaginative depiction of decadence and sin, shading into operatic and cinematic cliche. Given the current mess we're in, perhaps a bevy of leering bankers and the cast of Top of the Pops circa 1974 would have made for a more resonant picture of contemporary greed and lust - although George von Bergen's Lord Hate-Good did bear an uncanny resemblance to Kenny Everett.

Oida's use of First World War imagery isn't always convincing either, for all that it it anchors the piece in a formative era in the composer's own life which left its mark on his music and politics. Projections of footage from the trenches are rather ineffectual, but the giant figure of Apollyon (looking a bit like something from Pink Floyd's The Wall) is a memorably monstrous creation, stitched together from camo webbing, bandages and gas masks. Whether the three shepherds' transformation into a prison-camp trio of priest, doctor and captain and the revelation of the Delectable Mountains as the electric chair to which the Pilgrim is despatched offer a bleak deconstruction of the text's meaning or rather the ultimate guarantee of the traveller's undying faith is perhaps a matter of personal opinion, but the overall effect of this coup de theatre is certainly powerful, if perhaps somewhat confused.

Roland Wood's solid figure and initially somewhat grainy baritone didn't at first seem an ideal fit for the role of Pilgrim, but he grew in both stature and voice as the evening progressed, delivering a movingly committed performance that made Vaughan Williams' vocal lines come to full expressive life.

He had ideal support from his fellow prisoners, undergoing constant transformations into Bunyan's large cast of allegorical figures. Old hands Timothy Robinson and Ann Murray offered nicely honed comic turns as Mr and Mrs By-Ends, among others, while there was fine singing from the company's younger singers: Benedict Nelson brought both warmth and strength to Evangelist, George von Gergen was a ringing Herald, while Kitty Whately's Woodcutter's Boy (here metamorphosed into a tea-lady) and Eleanor Dennis's Voice of a Bird (a prisoner with a single feather in her hand) both provided some sweetly celestial sounds at key moments.

Despite the quality of the soloists, the evening was dominated by the ENO Chorus, clearly relishing the chance to show off their vocal chops in some of the most exciting material they've been let loose on all season. It was a great night for the orchestra too, with conductor Martyn Brabbins coaxing from them just the kind of luminous playing that this score demands. Brabbins, clearly aware of the traps Vaughan Williams' slow-burning score lays for the unwary, kept the inner momentum of the piece on track throughout, steering from floating, contemplative passages to intense climaxes without ever letting things sag. With on- and off-stage choruses, great swathes of brass and ethereal strings, the overall effect was of an irresistibly luxuriant wall of sound that filled the building. Whether or not the Coliseum audience had undergone a spiritual experience by the work's final, beatific act, they certainly enjoyed a wonderful musical one.

Perhaps, in the end, this hugely accomplished and sometimes brilliant show doesn't quite eclipse memories of the semi-staged performance at Sadlers Wells in 2008, in which the late Richard Hickcox, an onstage Philharmonia and Roderick Williams' Pilgrim achieved a kind of musical communion in which less really did prove to be more; but this is the sort of ensemble effort that no one does better than ENO on top form, and it hopefully goes a long way to ensuring that we don't have to wait another 60 years to see Vaughan Williams' strangely powerful masterpiece again.

By David Sutton

Photos: Alastair Muir