The history of ENO’s production of Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ reflects a multiple triumph. This is the first full professional British staging since its premiere was overseen by the 79-year-old composer at the Festival of Britain in 1951 - and 79 is the age of this production’s Japanese director Yoshi Oida.
Bunyan’s morality-tale reflects a triumph of a higher order, since he wrote it while in prison for ‘unlicensed preaching’. Oida wants us to see his drama as taking place within a prison, ‘but not a very solid one’; he follows Bunyan’s cue that it’s all a dream. And if his aesthetic has its roots in Noh, that fits neatly with what the composer himself described as ‘more a ceremony than a drama’.
The lights go up on a bare stage bounded by a huge metal cage, with The Pilgrim - baritone Roland Wood - bundled in by uniformed guards while a Tudor hymn is heard in the background. Then he too sings, and thus begins a solo performance of such warmth and richness that it literally carries the evening.
And as the first act unfolds, one realises that this evening will need carrying. The work is less an opera than an oratorio, and if you don’t like the garrulousness of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, or the cosy pastoralism of his songs, time will drag seriously; Oida’s direction, meanwhile, has a blandness which becomes numbing.
It’s a full hour before we get some real drama, in which choreographer Carolyn Choa repeats her charming puppet-trick from ‘Madam Butterfly’ by giving us a little bunraku Pilgrim to slay the giant Appolyon. The Vanity Fair episode is clearly meant to be the first half’s piece de resistance, but its cavalcade of camp clichés referencing ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Grease’ is just an embarrassment.
For the second half Oida trades heavily on First World War newsreel footage, and he equates the electric chair with the gate to heaven: God knows what point he’s trying to make there - is he conflating Christianity with the glorious martyrdom of Islam? This may make an impressive coup de theatre, but it reeks of bad faith.
Wood apart, the plaudits must go to conductor Martyn Brabbins and his wonderful brass, to the chorus, and to the Protean Timothy Robinson, who lights up every scene in which he appears.