Saturday 17 November 2012

ENO's Pilgrim's Progress, or Vaughan Williams Fails to Find the Celestial City

I have to begin this review by acknowledging that there are very plainly two viewpoints on this work. There are those who find it a powerfully moving, in many cases deeply spiritual experience. Then there are those, of whom I am one, who do not. Given that there were the usual swathes of empty seats (at least in the Dress Circle) I suspect I am not alone.

The most positive aspect of this performance was the musical performances led by Roland Wood as the Pilgrim. He's not always well served by the direction (when he's armoured up in particular the thing has a rather unfortunate Monty Python air to it) but his diction is excellent, he sings with great character, and has the stamina to carry this challenging role. The various supporting camoes are all well taken, but none of them really have enough time to make a great impression. Of them I especially enjoyed hearing Kitty Whately again, who previously impressed me in Handel with English Touring Opera – though I was fascinated to discover from looking at the programme this morning that she was supposed in one scene to be a woodcutter's boy. Ann Murray also has two nice turns as Madam Bubble and Madam By-Ends. They were ably supported by the conducting of Martyn Brabbins and the singing and playing of the ENO Chorus and Orchestra, all of whom do their best with this problematic score.

About the production I was less convinced. The idea is that Bunyan himself has been imprisoned, imagines his journey to the celestial city, and at the end is back in prison again. Well fair enough. It isn't irritating but I didn't find it very inspired. There was to my mind a lack of a real feeling of a journey. The chorus have some bizarre Selleresque gestural moments. Oh, and big and not terribly effective puppets appear to be in (I couldn't really see why the Pilgrim didn't just dodge round the unmanouvreable Apollyon). The second half generally works less well than the first, the film shots of the First World War trenches didn't really fit, and the arrival in the Celestial City just doesn't come off dramatically.

However the real fundamental flaw for me is Vaughan Williams score. It isn't that there aren't some lovely moments. The trumpet motif is haunting, and there are lovely melodies particularly for various woodwinds. But I couldn't escape the feeling that after the first fifteen minutes or so I had pretty much heard what the composer had to offer for this work. After that there were just too many places where I found myself wanting them to get on with it, or feeling that the text and the emotions needed more than the music was capable of giving.

Finally, there is this question of religion. I don't think that the problem is that I'm not a spiritual person – I am, as I have mentioned in other contexts, a practicing Quaker. But somehow I rather felt in this show as if I were being preached at – something I never react well too. Indeed, contrary to the programme note which emphasises that Vaughan Williams wanted it to be universal, it felt distinctly a certain strain of Church of England to me. Preachy, yet somehow lacking an essential conviction. While I was at the performance, Messaien's St Francois came inescapably to mind. Vaughan Williams's arrival in the Celestial City is a pale comparison to the extraordinary, overpowering revelatory moments at the end of Messiaen's score. But afterwards it struck me that there is a much more obvious British parallel. Britten's Billy Budd, if we forget for a change this obsession with Britten and boys which seems to be colouring so many recent productions, is actually at bottom a very similar parable about the struggle between good and evil. Like the other two works I've mentioned it has a conclusion where Vere to my mind glimpses the Celestial City - and again musically it packs far more punch than Vaughan Williams is capable of. But the other point is that Britten and Crozier's opera is far more personalised – we see very clearly who these people in the struggle are. But the Pilgrim's Progress is deliberately abstract – we never really know why the Pilgrim is engaged in his struggle. I suppose this is the point – the Pilgrim as Everyman - but I found that distanced me from his plight rather than engaged me with it, and I think it contributed to the evening leaving me unmoved.

So in the end it just seems to me that once again English National Opera has expended its resources on reviving a justly neglected work. There is more justification in this case I grant you than for some of the others it has staged that I would put in this category. To an extent the argument can be made that from time to time certain things should be got out of storage, if only to remind everyone why they were in storage in the first place. But thinking of what ENO ignores it is again frustrating. John Berry in his programme note makes much of the company's championing of British work in recent season – with this as the latest example. I'm afraid when he says that my mind goes back to the fact that it will be English Touring Opera who will be staging Britten's Paul Bunyan and Tippett's King Priam. I know who I think is doing the greater service to the British repertoire.

As I say, there are clearly some people who find this an overpowering work, and as it is unlikely to come round again soon, if you haven't seen it there is no harm in going (especially if you can pick up a discounted ticket) but for me it was another glass half empty Coliseum evening.

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