There may be many reasons for the opera’s current neglect. One is surely that John Bunyan’s allegorical story and the added passages of verse (by Ursula Wood, who became Vaughan Williams’s second wife) were probably better known by the public at large then (Vaughan Williams’s long-gestated setting of Bunyan was first performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in April 1951) than they are by audiences today. Recognition of familiar chunks of text may have helped audiences understand what the morality and message was. Yet, it may also have helped gain the piece a reputation as being a religious work, perhaps to its detriment, particularly since it may have been regarded as similar to Elgar’s similarly-cast oratorios.
In today’s more secular society we can approach it differently and perhaps without viewing it as an overly Christian work. Vaughan Williams was a professed agnostic, but one who thought that some of the messages of the various world faiths were universal – to that end he called his protagonist “The Pilgrim” rather than “Christian”, and seraphim angels become less specific beings such as ‘heavenly bodies’ and ‘shining ones’. The text however is still fairly abundant with biblical references, particularly from the psalms, and also famous words from hymns. Vaughan Williams was very familiar with the latter, which no doubt owed to his editing of “The English Hymnal” from 1904-1906 – even in its latest publishing, this still has an extraordinarily strong Vaughan Williams imprint! – and from writing much cathedral and church music which still forms part of the bedrock of the English Cathedral Choral tradition.
Much of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is more oratorio or musical-mystery-play than opera, but the Vanity Fair episode (Act Three / Scene One) stands as a conventionally operatically-structured episode that sits right at the centre of the work and provides a striking contrast to the more meditative rest. There are moments that now strike one as being rather Wagnerian in their construction and even orchestration – such as the Apollyon episode (Act Two / Scene Two) which today sounds startlingly akin to the Siegfried-Fafner encounter in Act Two of “Siegfried”.
Whilst it was welcome to have a staging of a sort rather than a straightforward concert performance, the semi-staging by David Edwards was perhaps a little too literal. We did not need to see The Pilgrim with his heavy rucksack in the early scenes – its removal early on left the visual impression that the journey was almost over before it had started. The simulated waves of the deep near the opera’s close should also have been dispensed with. The production also tried too hard to be multi-faith in terms of costuming – rather predictably so. ‘Vanity Fair’ came off well, as did all the moments where the singers were left to sing naturally without additional business – such as the soliloquies and ‘The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains’.
The Philharmonia Orchestra’s presentation was blessed with some fabulous young and largely British singers at the centre of which was Roderick Williams’s superb performance as “The Pilgrim”. Not only did he sing the role’s many monologues with a beautiful, long-breathed and mellow baritone, but he also evinced an inner charisma coupled with an earnest but understated stage-presence that accords perfectly with the character and the work. Every word he sang could be heard, without reference to the supplied libretto.
To have voices of the quality of Matthew Rose, James Gilchrist and Matthew Brook as a mellifluous trio of shepherds was luxury casting; and all three brought distinctively differentiated and characterful contributions to their alternative roles – as Watchful, Brook’s singing the text of Psalm 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”) was one such moment. Gidon Saks was also a strong vocal and dramatic presence as a charismatic Lord Hate-Good, and when amplified from off-stage as Apollyon made every word tell (he’d make a great Fafner!). Neal Davies started and concluded the whole as a warm-voiced John Bunyan – one wished he’d had more to do.
The ladies of the cast were strong if not terribly individual – but that is perhaps the fault of the writing of their parts, though Andrea Baker made much of little as Madam By-Ends. Mention should be made of Susan Gilmour-Bailey stepping up from the chorus to sing the part of the First Shining One at very short notice – the performance had started late as the original singer had been caught in traffic problems. Balance was generally very good – the orchestra was placed behind the principal singers who also performed from various balcony areas. Unexpectedly, in the ‘Vanity Fair’ scene Andrew Kennedy, as Lord Lechery, seemed unable to get his words across with much clarity, subjected as he was to a rather over-loud orchestral tumult behind him. He was better elsewhere. Adam Hickox’s bright (if unevenly amplified) treble voice was confidently and sweetly sung. The members of Philharmonia Voices enjoyed their participation and seemed particularly to relish their abandoned contributions to ‘Vanity Fair’.
Richard Hickox, a devotee of Vaughan Williams’s music, and the Philharmonia Orchestra brought out all the colour of the score and made a strong argument for an enterprising company to give the work a full staging somewhere. The interludes were all atmospheric and distinguished by some fantastic playing from the woodwind soloists. The percussive glister of ‘Vanity Fair’ was exhilarating and the dancing figures that accompany Mister and Madam By-Ends had a humorous lilt (even if Richard Coxon overdid his ‘camp’ approach). Overall, the performance made one marvel afresh at this under-rated music (and return to Hickox’s own Chandos recording as well as the EMI one under Sir Adrian Boult) – and that surely is what the Philharmonia’s commemoration of Ralph Vaughan Williams is all about.
- Further performance on Sunday 22 June at 4 p.m.
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