Opera: The Pilgirm's Progess St Endellion, Cornwall

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The Independent Culture
John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, with its biblical cadence and personification of Virtue and Vice, revives the wit and insight of mediaeval morality. Yet it would be easy to trivialise, by some pert or pompous staging, into lofty platitude or halfcock Rabelais.

Vaughan Williams deserved far better, though his own The Pilgrim's Progress, a "Morality" four decades in the evolving, flopped in the operatically sniffy early Fifties. One may miss the Slough of Despond, Giant Despair, or one's own favourite vignette, but his selection coheres, and its dramatic build-up, no mere thin pageantry, is tangibly successful. Some liken it - witness Joseph Ward's luminously inspired Royal Northern College staging - to Wagner; Elgar's Gerontius, fresh off the stocks when Vaughan Williams first toyed with Bunyan, remains a backdrop.

This autumn's "Vision of Albion" Festival will bring it to the Barbican. That October feast was pre-empted this week by two three-hour concert performances of The Pilgrim's Progress under Richard Hickox at the boldly conceived, well-established festival in the tiny North Cornish village of St Endellion.

A rewarding night out it was, too. Williams's Tallis Fantasia, with pure- tuned violin soli from Thomas Bowes, a growingly rounded string chorus and telling pianissimos, set beside its source (Tallis's Third Mode, intoned beforehand), instantly confirmed the church's uniquely focused acoustic. Such unechoey directness produced the odd drawback: logically, Hickox steered away from overmeasured pacings, with some marginal loss of spaciousness; most climaxes still packed ample punch. A few words - the chorus's contrapuntal launch into "Vanity Fair", some soaring moments from Lord Lechery (Richard Rogers) - got mislaid. Any minuscule smudging in strings or low brass sticks out fearfully. The orchestral transition to Pilgrim's fine prison monologue felt overloaded.

But helped by brisk characterisation and an unfussy dramatic use of the church's various crannies, this proved a charmed evening. Roderick Williams's Pilgrim was a beautifully turned performance, assured, by turns searching, optimistic, virile, never smug, riding capably above even dense textures, with a satisfying range of warm or indignant tone to match the visionary ecstasy.

Round him rallied a shrewd, able team: Matthew Brook's pugnacious Lord Hate-Good, odiously ranting in a powerful duo with John Bowen's pontificatory Usher; Ingrid Attrot's branch bearer - shades of Rutland Boughton's The Immortal Hour; the flute-led, female voice Three Shining Ones, engaging in robust exchange with chorus and James Oxley's forthright tenor Interpreter; Catherine Pierard's brazen Madam Wanton; Edward Burrowes's resonantly projected, clarinet-charmed Woodcutter's boy; Alan Ewing's inimical Apollyon, booming with aptly Fafneresque resonance from below the bell-tower.

There was much else: split-second timing in the nervous neighbours' male voice quartet; David Crown's gently coaxing Evangelist; part comedy in Daniel Norman's Mr By-Ends vignette with Ameral Gunson; Bunyan's final presentation of the book. Many instrumental soli shone: Vanity Fair's xylophonic melee; heraldic off-stage trumpet; the By-Ends' cavorting bassoons; pastoral viola; and indeed tuba. The chorus, sibilant and graty where called for, gave all it had. Above all the universal energy and commitment, audible and visible, positively beaming from podium and Pilgrim's pulpit to galvanise the entire well-choreographed gathering, served the piece well. It was genuinely uplifting.

The `Vision of Albion' Vaughan Williams opera and film festival, at the Barbican from 2 Oct to 3 Nov (0171-638 4141). `The Pilgrim's Progress' at the Barbican, 3 Nov, and Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 30 Nov (0121-212 3333)

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