Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Pilgrim's Progress

Vaughn Willams
English National Opera
The London Coliseum

ENO Chorus in Vanity Fair 2 with Colin Judson (Lord Lechery) centre Credit: Mike Hoban
Roland Wood, centre (Pilgrim) Kitty Whately, Aoife O'Sullivan, Eleanor Dennis L-R in background (Three Shining Ones) Credit: Mike Hoban

It’s sixty years since the first and last professional staging of Vaughn Williams’s Pilgrims Progress. Back then the reviews hailed it as musically deeply moving but with staging that left much to be desired. Watching ENO’s attempt, the same criticism still rings true. Is it a fundamental flaw in the story, or Yoshi Oïda’s direction?

Vaughn Williams asserted that, despite having no ‘love story or any big duets’, the opera was a ‘stage piece’ and should not be ‘relegated to a cathedral’. Yet the work is primarily an allegorical tale, based on John Bunyan’s classic novel The Pilgrims Progress.

The Pilgrim (Roland Wood) sets forth on a journey to reach the celestial city, and on his trek meets a host of characters and settings that are well known in our cultural vocabulary—the Delectable Mountains, Vanity Fair, Faithful, Mr Wordly Wiseman to name but a few.

A major libretto difficulty is the relative ease with which the pilgrim overcomes the obstacles in his journey. He is assisted constantly and, although Wood conveys his determined struggle, this seems at odds with the lack of dramatic tension in the situation. Vaughn Williams wanted a true drama, but Oïda’s staging errs on the blander side.

Despite this, there are moments of brilliance. John Bunyan is found in an oppressive, albeit beautiful, gilded cell where scaffold-like bars cover the stage. The subsequent gliding transitions effectively mark the Pilgrim's travel and shows off the rich set design (Tom Schenk). The arrival at Vanity Fair is Oïda at his most vivid. With the ensemble each engrossed in lecherous playtime, this is a feast for the eyes. After the preceding utilitarian prison garb, Sue Willmington’s costumes explode onstage in brilliant Technicolor and in every shape imaginable.

Yet Oïda’s playful and dramatic work stumbles with the introduction of material that’s never fully explained. There are too many gimmicks with no obvious effect, the Japanese puppet battle in the middle being amongst the most bizarre. Executed with as much grace as a primary school play, it completely detaches the audience at what could be a brilliant chance to root for the Pilgrim in the fight. The choreographed emotive gestures also do little to aid the work, and I’m still in the dark as to the umbrella-wielding evangelist…

Vaughn Williams’s score is an expressive treat. Although a rarely-heard piece, much of the music bears the VW hallmark, unsurprising when he composed the work over a forty-year period, heavily influencing his other compositions. Conductor Martin Brabbins ekes out indulgent string melodies and spurs on the fantastically British-sounding fanfares, charting an exciting journey. He swims sylph-like through reflective passages before playfully dancing with the caricatures. Roland Wood leads a strong cast, and he generously invites us to share in his pilgrimage.

Oïda proves that this is a work worthy of the operatic stage, but this production is still wide of the mark. Scenes like Vanity Fair, and the gentle anointing by the shepherds, prove the potential of Oïda’s production. Frustratingly, this only makes the more unusual moments of staging seem entirely unnecessary.

Since Don Giovanni and Julius Caesar were also heaped with unexplored images and staging ideas that blurred otherwise fantastic concepts, this appears to be something of a theme this season at the ENO. The old adage has never seemed so apt; less is more. 

Reviewer: Louise Lewis