The Pilgrim's Progress

Royal Opera, Barbican Hall,

London

The climax of Richard Hickox's festival of Vaughan Williams operas, Vision of Albion, was always going to be the semi-staged production of that rarely performed masterpiece . Of central importance to Vaughan Williams's radical vision, John Bunyan's allegory occupied the composer's mind from the beginning of his career in 1906, when he wrote incidental music for a dramatisation, to 1949 when his opera was completed.

He had worked off and on at the opera, or "morality", as he called it, since the Twenties, and bits of the work, which he often felt would never be completed, became germinal ideas in other important works of the period, especially the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Wilfrid Mellors, in his marvellous book on the composer, whose title has been used for this festival, likens to the trunk of a tree whose main branches are all other major works of the composer.

It is hardly surprising that Vaughan Williams felt more than usually close to the work, and when its premiere in 1951 proved less than successful he was deeply hurt. A later staging at Cambridge restored his confidence in it and confirmed its status, but it has rarely been heard since, and its lack of conventionally operatic characteristics has proved difficult to come to terms with.

It is a static and ritualistic work, yet the composer always felt that it belonged to the theatre and discouraged performances in church or concert hall. Whether he would have approved of Joseph Ward's semi-staging of it at the Barbican on Ikea-like ramps and pulpits, is a moot point. But it lies outside the central operatic tradition and any treatment that suggests, as this did, its ritual drama and spiritual radiance strikes a blow for the cause of a splendidly visionary work.

If I have a reservation about it, it is that the composer pondered the music for so long and used ideas from it so magnificently in other contexts that it may have lost some of its intensity in the long wait between conception and realisation. Dalla Piccola's Ulysses has been criticised on similar grounds. Hickox's fine performance of it on this occasion, however, went a long way towards re-establishing the work's nobility and sturdiness, and the lyric intensity of the climactic solo and choral textures achieved true incandescence.

It is a work that offers a host of character parts as well as the testing role of Pilgrim, and there was much fine singing to enjoy. Heading the large cast was Gerald Finley, whose Pilgrim achieved an ideal combination of earthiness and spiritual honesty, no mere symbolic figure but a man to sympathise with and admire. From among the many singers taking multiple roles, Rebecca Evans, Susan Gritton, Pamela Helen Stephen and Anne-Marie Owens excelled, as did Jeremy White, Adrian Thompson and Mica Penniman.

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