Ralph Vaughan Williams never used the term "opera" to describe The Pilgrim's Progess, preferring to call it a "morality". Threaded through with allusions to Tudor hymnody and chaste parallel thirds, the work is steeped in sorrow and grace; a drama without theatrical properties, a Non-Conformist oratorio with a striptease in Act III.
What drew a composer whose own belief was described as "cheerful agnosticism" to John Bunyan's dream-allegory of a soul in search of salvation? Bunyan and Vaughan Williams both lived in times of upheaval: the first adrift in the Restoration jostle of depressives and visionaries, schismatics and pantheists, Adamites, Barrowists, Diggers and Quakers; the second aghast at the devastation of two world wars. Yet the difference between the two men is as plain as that between Thomas Tallis's setting of "Why fum'th in fight the Gentiles spite" and Vaughan Williams's shimmering Fantasia on the same theme. For Bunyan, imprisoned for preaching without licence, poetry was a means to an end; for Vaughan Williams, it was an end in itself.
In Yoshi Oida's ENO production, the strengths and weaknesses of The Pilgrim's Progress are laid bare, carried on the back of Roland Wood's Pilgrim. In a drama of archetypes – from the querulous quartet of Pliable, Obstinate, Mistrust and Timorous, to the bare-bottomed, nipple-tassled pantomime of judges and whores in Vanity Fair – Pilgrim is the only flesh-and-blood human, doggedly blinking at the false and true lights on the straight and narrow path, singing with sturdy beauty. ENO favourites Ann Murray and Timothy Robinson twitter and titillate in the multiple leading roles, while George von Bergen's Lord Hate-Good, Kitty Whately's merry Woodcutter's Boy and Eleanor Dennis's full-throated Voice of a Bird stand out among the multiplicity of supporting roles.
Oida is at his most insightful in the simplest and most ceremonial scenes, the psalms that soothe and strengthen Pilgrim and his fellow prisoners. Less convincing are the moments when designer Tom Schenk's spare panels of penal walkways and rusted cell doors form the backdrop to Bunyan's wilder fantasies. Pilgrim's battle with Apollyon is choreographed by Carolyn Choa as a duel between a bunraku puppet and an animated landfill of bin-liners, while Vanity Fair is a debauch between the House of Lords and the light entertainment industry. Video footage of trench warfare belatedly positions the production in a more specific setting, though it is unclear why Pilgrim should reach salvation via the electric chair – condemned for desertion, perhaps? His burden, shaped like a child's coffin, and carried on his back, is haunting. Orchestrally and chorally, the production is a triumph, with conductor Martyn Brabbins meticulously balancing each stained-glass wash of colour. How deeply it moves you will depend on your appetite for a cheerfully agnostic brand of radiance, and a willingness to relinquish the pungent fervour of Bunyan's original vision.
Last weekend, Oliver Knussen dedicated his Barbican performance of Requiem – Songs for Sue with Claire Booth and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to Hans Werner Henze, who had died a few days earlier at the age of 86. To an audience still reeling from the news of singer Robert Poulton's death on 30 October, this 2006 setting of four poems by Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado, WH Auden and Rilke, written in memory of Knussen's wife and for Booth's voice, became the centrepiece of the last concert in Total Immersion: Oliver Knussen at 60. This was a chance to remember Europe's most lyrical post-War contrarian, whose musical intelligence and wit were treasured by those who'd watched him in show after show, season after season.
Knussen's output is small – just 35 works in the catalogue – but the economy and fluency of his voice is unmistakable. From the soft pools of marimba in the Dickinson, to the panicked etching of cello and bass in the Machado, the cool lament of flute and viola in the Auden and the nocturnal spaciousness of the Rilke, Requiem – Songs for Sue is typically precise, waspish, tender. In the 1992 Whitman Settings, also sung by Booth, the American poet's rhythmical play of sound and imagery is frosted with dynamic figures for harp, the orchestration miraculously balanced from the lowest growl to the faintest wisp of sound, while the 1994 Horn Concerto is a wordless Mahlerian song-cycle, delivered with grave eloquence by Martin Owen.
After Booth's feisty performances as Max and Rhoda in the previous day's double-bill of Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, played brilliantly by the Britten Sinfonia under Ryan Wigglesworth, and directed with authentic Sendak-esque wit by Netia Jones, the weekend could well have been re-titled "Total Immersion: Claire Booth". But that would have been an injustice to mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer, whose fearless impersonation of Jennie, the wistful Sealyham Terrier who longs for "experience", gave heart and fibre to Knussen's family-friendly philosophical singspiel.
'The Pilgrim's Progress' (020-7845 9300), to 28 Nov
Cecilia Bartoli joins the Kammerorchester Basel in arias and overtures by Agostino Steffani, at London's Barbican Hall (Thu). Juanjo Mena, the BBC Philharmonic and Manchester Chamber Choir explore two great works of faith, Bach's Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall (Fri). Also on Fri, the 10-day Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival opens with composer-in-residence Maja S K Ratkje.Reuse content