Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress

English National Opera, 20 November 2012

An aria from the Pilgrim's Progress, details here.
A magnificent but disturbing work, constructively subverted by the production.
Much as I love the music of Vaughan Williams, I wonder what drew him so obssessively to Bunyan's allegory, given that he avoids most of the more appealing human aspects of that work in his adaptation for the stage, and in one vital respect stresses its least appealing aspect for a liberal audience, its puritanism.

Having the Pilgrim (Christian in the book) centrestage requires us always to recall that this is a morality tale, and that we are meant to be judging the joys of Vanity Fair as harshly as Bunyan thought we ought to. But this is simply not how we read the book, with its vital characters who only incidentally happen to have a didactic purpose.

Things would be much better if the composer had been able to breath erotic life into the music of Vanity Fair, or satanic glory into Appolyon. As it is, we are left with piety and landscapes, a kind of self-parody. The Pilgrim's Progress is not undramatic, as some people seem to think, but it is poor theatre and needs a lot of help to work.

It gets it here. Yoshi Oïda sets the imprisoned Bunyan's dream within the prison itself, so that the journey from this life to the next amounts to preparation for a public execution.

The grotesque conclusion might seem to completely undermine Vaughan Williams' incredibly beautiful and spiritual music, but instead the music transfigures what we see on stage. I would be interested to learn how a US death-penalty supporting christian evangelical might experience this production. I suspect they might approve, so that this drama is a powerful reflection of views diametrically opposed to my own.

For when presenting the slow attainment of this dubious grace by the Pilgrim, the music is overwhelmingly powerful, a mixture of introspection and rhapsody, and fully justifying the composer's belief this was his masterpiece.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins deserves the credit here, maintaining momentum and managing transitions masterfully. Acting and singing reach a very high standard.

A drama that exhalts humility and the spiritual life over the pleasures of the flesh, or even of affable sociability is hard to take, especially when the exhalting is quite so wonderful and the pleasures so meagre. English National Opera have shown how it can be done.

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