Vaughan Williams toiled for most of his creative life to turn Bunyan's allegory of the Christian life into a full-length work, so the tepid reception at Covent Garden in 1951 was, perhaps, his greatest disappointment. Nor has it been much seen since, though both Sir Adrian Boult and Richard Hickox championed it on disc, and this semi-staging by David Edwards, as part of the Philharmonia's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of RVW's death, came over very much as a labour of love.
It was also convincingly sung by Philharmonia Voices and a large cast led by Roderick Williams – surely the most intelligent and versatile young baritone now before the British public. From the moment his Pilgrim encountered the serenely sonorous evangelist of Matthew Rose, it was evident we were going to hear almost every word of the text. Other memorable cameo-assumptions were Andrew Kennedy as Lord Lechery, Gidon Saks as Appollyon and Lord Hate-Good, and Neal Davies as Bunyan himself.
No doubt it is a limitation of the action that female voices tend to be confined to heavenly handmaidens and whores; no doubt those who criticised it as lacking in dramatic tension had a point (though compared with Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise, its pacing seems mercurial).
In fact, the composer worked hard to maximise contrast between the ritual "House Beautiful" scene with its allusions to his Fifth Symphony, and the howlingly dissonant encounter with Appollyon; between the hard-driven "Vanity Fair" scene and the repose of the Delectable Mountains, touched by pastoral echoes of his Symphony No 3. If episodes such as Watchful's beautiful Act I nocturnal meditation "Into Thy Hands" seem unduly to hold up the action, perhaps the work should be thought of less as opera than as a staged, agnostic Passion.
For those truly affined, in any case, what triumphs over any residual dramatic naiveté, as over the music's darker, more unsettling implications, are those serene and stately dance measures as remembered from Job, that gentle, suffusing, visionary gleam; these embody the essential message.