I first made the acquaintance of RVW's opera The Pilgrim's Progress in the 1970's as a student, eagerly devouring Meredith Davies's wonderfully cast boxed set; even today I can hear Ian Partridge's lovely tones as the Interpreter.
I was lucky enough to see the opera when it was staged by the Royal Northern College of Music and also went to see Richard Hickox's semi-staged performance at the Barbican, mounted after proposed performances at the Royal Opera House fell through. Both these performances had much to recommended them and the staging at the Royal Northern College of Music was particularly moving.
But both performances seemed to suffer when it came to some of the voice types used. RVW wrote his opera for a generation of English singers who still combined singing Handel with singing larger scale works, for whom focus and line were the watchwords rather than vibrato and spread of tone. This meant that in the more recent revivals of this opera, there was sometimes a noticeable lack of blend between the voices. With this new production Hickox has used not just young voices, but lyric singers who are often happy alternating between 19th century music and baroque period performance. The result was a performance which combined commitment with the beauty of tone and blend which RVW requires.
Having just conducted the opera in Australia, Hickox is back in London conducting The Pilgrim's Progress as the centrepiece of the Philharmonia Orchestra's year long celebration of the composer. The opera was performed at Sadlers Wells Theatre in a staging by David Edwards. It was billed as a semi-staging; true the chorus remained seated and sang from scores, but the large cast of costumed soloists all sang off the book and were given a substantial acting area in front of the orchestra.
Not unnaturally the Philharmonia Orchestra took centre stage, with the pit covered, and the singers made their entrances and exits through the orchestra.
Matthew Rose's Evangelist and Robert Hayward's Herald both wore dark suits, like some sort of functionary, but the Shining Ones (Susan Gilmour Bailey, Sarah Tynana and Pamela Helen Stephenson), the Interpreter (James Gilchrist), the Heavenly Beings (Sarah Tynan and Pamela Helen Stephenson) and the Celestial Messenger (Andrew Kennedy), all wore white Indian style garb.
Edwards also provided the cast with a repertoire of hierartic gestures which enabled them to convey the unworldly nature of the Pilgrim's journey in a consistent and satisfying manner.
As can be seen from this list, the roster of names involved in the production was an impressive one. Not mentionned so far, Timothy Robinson (Timorous, Usher), Richard Cozon (Pliable, Mr By-Ends), Gidon Saks (Apollyon, Lord Hategood) and Neal Davies as Bunyan. All the cast were impressive, singing without scores and without prompt, throwing themselves into Edwards's concept so as to give us an involving and believable theatrical experience.
In the Vanity Fair scene, which was done in modern dress, all involved conspired to give us a convincing account of what can be a problematic scene and RVW was depicting not the corruption of real evil but the corruption of everyday lax folk. Andrew Kennedy was particularly impressive as the good-time playboy Lord Lechery.
But it is in the title role that this opera can stand or fall. The Pilgrim is on stage for most of the evening, Roderick Williams sang Pilgrims music in firm, mellifluous tones and conveyed Pilgrim's dilemma and spiritual journey with a convincing intensity. There were moments during the lovely prison scene when he seemed to be tiring, but he recovered to give us a radiant and brilliant end.
The other hero of the evening was the orchestra, RVW includes a great many orchestra interludes so the orchestra was often at the fore. Individual players contributed some fine solos and the whole group played as if they too were on Pilgrim's journey.
Hickox, of course, loves this music but also has the measure of it so that it works well in the concert hall and theatre.
There was a libretto and house lights were high enough for this to be followed. But frankly, I didn't need to; the cast's diction was so uniformly excellent so that you could follow the words at all times.
This was an inspiring and entrancing evening, convincing one again that RVW's morality is a stageable and stageworthy work. The only down side was that there were only 2 performances, would that it could have been caught on DVD.