Intimations of morality

Review of Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Pilgrim’s Progress, English National Opera. Published in the Times Literary Supplement, 23 November 2012, p. 18.


“What is truth?”, asks Pontius Pilate as, clutching his enormous prosthetic breasts, he waves nipple tassels at the Pilgrim. In ENO’s new staging of Vaughan Williams’s “morality” (not, he said, an opera) on John Bunyan’s allegory, the director Yoshi Oida takes a step beyond the composer’s intention that the work should “appeal to anybody who aims at the spiritual life whether he is Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Shintoist or 5th Day Adventist”. As well as bringing Eastern religions into the spiritual space of the work, the production manages, with only one notable misjudgement, to permit an ambiguous secular parable to emerge.

Bunyan’s tale occupied Vaughan Williams from 1906, when he first composed music for twelve episodes, to 1952, as he revised it a year after its premiere. Appropriately for a work which spans a period from the gorgeous lyricism of the Norfolk Rhapsodies to the discomfiting visions of the Sixth Symphony, the piece offers a kind of smorgasbord of Vaughan Williams’s mature compositional styles, each of which turns out to be well suited to different episodes in the Pilgrim’s journey. Rapturous opening and closing hymn tunes present the framing device of Bunyan in prison, narrating his doubly mediated “similitude of a dream”, while the composer’s darker, post-war language is reserved for the confrontation with Apollyon and the excess of Vanity Fair.

Central to the conception of this staging is Bunyan’s blurring of the difference between dream and reality. This becomes more pronounced as the evening proceeds. Act Four and the epilogue are set entirely in the prison building where Bunyan first appears. While the libretto has the Pilgrim directed towards the Celestial City, on stage the prisoner is being prepared for execution by electric chair. This straightforwardly realistic denouement had been grotesquely prefigured at Vanity Fair, at the high point of this production’s least realistic passage of action, and it is only when the dead prisoner rises from his chair to resume the voice of Bunyan for the epilogue that the minimal distance between dream and reality is clarified. As a metaphor added to the existing Christian metaphor of the journey, and here in its final stages the crossing of a river, this staging makes perfect logical sense. And as well as responding to the epilogue’s exhortation to the audience to “turn up [its] metaphors” and interpret the tale for itself, it gives an inner dramatic motion to music which, while some of the most beautiful in the work, perhaps lacks the necessary theatrical force to guarantee a satisfactory experience in the opera house.

The fantastical first half is managed with almost as much success. The Pilgrim’s ritual initiation is achieved by fire, water, and a little t’ai chi. Allegorical figures like Pliable, Obstinate, Mistrust, and Timorous carry name placards so that we miss neither their specific individual significance nor the dreamlike surrealism of their intervention. The high point of the evening is the scene with the gigantic Apollyon, two storeys high and controlled by puppeteers on stage and scaffolds. He is imagined as a kind of massive, demonic vacuum cleaner, with thick hoses for legs and a suction tube for a mouth. His body is a mass of rags, perhaps the last surviving parts of the human souls he has sucked into oblivion. He is given menacing voice by Mark Richardson, singing through a tube, which, typically for the ingenuity of this staging, both echoes the modelling of the puppet and also provides a Fafneresque awesomeness to his music, which somehow exerts itself over the deafening brass writing.

The production’s one disappointment is the treatment of Vanity Fair in the next scene, which betrays a limited directorial conception both of puritanical morality and of the possibilities for contemporary allegory. At Vanity Fair everything, including human souls, is for sale, but for the director only one thing stands out: sex. Specifically it is gender-bending sex, or rather sexual identity, that has the upper hand. Bunyan’s phantasmagoric political protest is reduced to a false presumption that puritanism was only concerned with sex, and I am not sure what the negative portrayal of transexuals and camp Asian dancers – representative of all that is base and venal – is meant to communicate to contemporary audiences. And there are obvious alternative staging decisions the director could have taken here. For instance, while certainly unsurprising, a staging of the scene which populated the stage with bankers, CEOs and so on, would at least have had an allegorical point to make. The crossdressing, pouting, and mock buggery of this scene are not only curiously reactionary in the attitude they present to alternatives to conventional heterosexual behaviour but also intellectually lazy. (I suppose it could be noted for balance that the director did at least avoid the two dullest contemporary directorial fixations: Nazis and gang rape.)

Musically, every contribution is excellent. The orchestra, vigorously conducted by Martyn Brabbins, is radiant when it needs to be and hair-raisingly loud at the moments of high drama, to which the ENO chorus adds a devilish mass of sound. Every solo part is sung well, and the performance coheres around a particularly mellifluous Pilgrim (Roland Wood). Always musically and dramatically gripping, and complex and thought-provoking as a visual conception, this deserves to be packed every night.

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