Saturday 10 November 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress at the London Coliseum

ENO Pilgrims Progress 2012 - Roland Wood (Pilgrim) - (c) Mike Hoban
Roland Wood (Pilgrim)
(c) Mike Hoban
I have known and loved Vaughan Williams' opera The Pilgrim's Progress since the late 1970's, when I first learned it from records in Sir Adrian Boult's recording with John Noble in the title role. I had no conception that I would ever hear it live, but have been lucky enough to see it three times all in very fine performances. First off at the Royal Northern College of Music, in Joseph Ward's staging (with Richard Whitehouse in the title role with Igor Kennaway conducting); a production that proved that the work was a viable opera (rather than an oratorio in disguise) and worked brilliantly on stage. Then I have seen two semi-stagings in London, both conducted by Richard Hickox. One, in 1997, at the Barbican and the other, in 2008, at the Sadlers Wells Theatre. The piece works quite well being semi-staged, especially as both performances had very strong casts. In 1997 Joseph Ward directed with Gerald Finley as Pilgrim, in 2008 Roderick Williams was Pilgrim with David Edwards conducting. (Incidentally Joseph Ward sang Lord Lechery in the operas performances in the 1950's). So it was with great interest and anticipation that I looked forward to ENO's new staging, the first professional full staging that the work has received in the UK since the 1950's. We saw the performance on 9 November (its second night).

ENO chose the Japanese actor and director Yoshi Oida as director. Oida has worked extensively with Peter Brook and has had some success directing Britten's operas at Aldeburgh. Sets were designed by Tom Schenk with costumes by Sue Willmington. RVW's piece requires a large cast and ENO used a basic ensemble of 12 soloists each of whom sang three or four roles, with Roland Wood combining the roles of John Bunyan and Pilgrim.

Though Bunyan's book The Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory, the places on Christian's journey are based on existing ones, Christian makes a very real journey from Elstow in Bedfordshire (Bunyan's birthplace to London. Previous productions that I have seen have generally staged the journey as described in the book/libretto. (Note that RVW changed the name of the protagonist from Christian to Pilgrim, but he kept the Christian iconography of the text and even added to it by including biblical passages).

Oida and Schenk seem to have gone back to the idea of Pilgrim's journey as an extension of a real journey. But this time, it is Bunyan himself in an early 20th century prison going to his death in the electric chair. This was not quite apparent in the first half, where the staff and inmates of the prison camp, donned costume to interact with Pilgrim. Schenk's set consisted of a series of metal gantries which were easily reconfigured, so that the setting flowed flexibly. There were video projections onto the back wall and onto a screen; notably images from the First World War (including, I think, RVW himself).

At first, it was unclear quite whether this was a re-enactment by the camp or was all happening in Bunyan's head. This was exacerbated by the fact that Oida had ditched the Christian iconography, and replaced it with his own array of actions and hand movements. As Benedict Nelson sang both Evangelist and Watchful these were conflated into the same character, dressed pretty much like an English officer figure but with a permanently open umbrella (for no clear reason). During Watchful's aria there was an extensive fire ceremony. And at various times  Carolyn Choa's Tai-Chi like choreography turned into something more elaborate which verged on Dungeons and Dragons.

The result was moving, but dangerously Harry Potter-ish at times. During the Arming of Pilgrim, Wood was dressed in real armour (looking rather 17th century), complete with a pike. But his fight with Apollyon was done as a puppet fight, with a small puppet Pilgrim and a huge, unconvincing Apollyon. This was probably the weakest scene in the first half. Wood's Pilgrim took no part in the fight but sat in a trance.

ENO - The Pilgrim's Progress. ENO Chorus in Vanity Fair 2 with Colin Judson (Lord Lechery) centre (c) Mike Hoban
Vanity Fair - ENO Chorus, Colin Judson (Lord Lechery)
(c) Mike Hoban
Oida chose to end the first half not with the Apollyon scene but with Vanity Fair. This was a circus-like carnival. There was no sense of real vice tempting Pilgrim. This is a scene which RVW wanted to go the whole way and include strippers. But Oida chose to go much further and push it into caricature. Wilmington's costumes here were dazzling, so amazing that they were rather distracting. Oida and Wilmongton gave us pure spectacle, striking and gorgeous but meaningless in dramatic terms. This was particularly true with the march at the end when Pilgrim is taken away to prison, which has the potential (unrealised here) to be quite fearsome.

Part 2 opened in prison, and from now on it was clear that this was not a re-enactment but was happening in Pilgrim's head, an allegory of his own journey. The By-Ends were in early 20th century costume and could easily have been prison visitors, for the Delectable Mountains Pilgrim was simply visited by a priest, a doctor and a lawyer, with the electric chair looming in the background. Then for the Pilgrim's entry into the Celestial City, we saw him being led to the electric chair and electrocuted. His struggle with the waters before the Celestial City were his reaction to being strapped in, with video projections of water above. Finally, Wood was released by the three Celestial Voices and walked down to front stage to become Bunyan again.

Described baldly like that, Oida's solution sounds grim and pointless. But, in fact, I found the Delectable Mountains scene to be unbearably poignant, and the entry to the Celestial City was profoundly moving. It helped that the setting looked spectacular, partly thanks to Lutz Deppe's lighting. And also, it was musically a very fine performance indeed.

In the title role, Roland Wood gave a strongly moving performance. Pilgrim is a big role (the character is rarely off stage) rendered even bigger by subsuming into it Bunyan's part from the Prologue and Epilogue. At first, I thought that his singing lacked firmness, but as Pilgrim set out on his journey so Wood's voice developed power and firmness. His performance had great integrity and a strong sense of inwardness; there were moments when Wood did not do a lot on stage but at all times he conveyed a real feeling that Pilgrim was going on an inner journey. In the Delectable Mountains he gave a strong sense that though we were seeing the prison, by now Pilgrim was elsewhere. Wood is quite a big man and he was adept at using his bulk expressively, conveying the feeling of a straight-forward, direct bloke struggling with the sense that there is an elsewhere. Oida gives no idea of what this elsewhere is, and frankly I think that performance would have had greater resonance if some basic Christian iconography had been used.

Benedict Nelson made a fine Evangelist, perhaps slightly inhibited by having to play the role as a gentleman officer, and not always achieving the beauty of tone needed. His lovely account of Watchful's aria was marred by pitch problems in the unaccompanied sections. Nelson also reoccurred as on of the Shepherds in the Delectable Mountains. Timothy Robinson showed what a versatile performer he is by performing the Interpreter, the Usher (in the Vanity Fair scene), Mister By-Ends and one of the Shepherds in the Delectable Mountains. For the Interpreter he did not quite eclipse memories of Ian Patridge's beautiful tones on record, but he did very well and found a sense of inner calm in the role. His Usher and Mister By-Ends were cameos of brilliant comedy, each different, and his Shepherd was a fine member of the ensemble.

George von Bergen popped up first as Obstinate in Act 1, then he was an impressive Herald in the Arming of the Pilgrim and a hilarious Lord Hate-Good in Vanity Fair. Apollyon was sung by Mark Richardson (amplified from off stage), he also sang Mistrust in Act 1, Envy in Vanity Fair and one of the Shepherds. Alexander Sprague was Pliable in Act 1, plus Superstition in Vanity Fair and one of the Celestial Voices. Colin Judson was Timorous in Act 1, an amazing Lord Lechery dressed half as a woman and half as a man giving a good account of the aria, finally he was the Celestial Messenger. In Vanity Fair, Demas, Judas Iscariot, Simon Magus and Worldly Glory were sung by Michael Selby, Christohper Speight, Andrew Tinkler and Graeme Lauren.

Ann Murray was a delightfully pointed Mrs By-Ends, developing a great routine with Timothy Robinson as her husband.  She was also a glorious Madam Bubble, and one of the Celestial Voices. The Shining Ones, Cup Bearer and Branch Bear were Aoife O'Sullivan, Chloe Hinton (replacing an indisposed Kitty Whately) and Eleanor Dennis. As the Shining Ones the three blended beautifully in a way that does not always happen in this music. Dennis reappeared as wonderfully over the top Madam Wanton, finally she was one of the Celestial Voices. In Vanity Fair, O'Sullivan was also Malice and Hinton was Pickthank. Hinton also sang the Woodcutter's boy (here a lady handing out food to the prisoners), impressing with her clean and natural delivery, especially as she stood in at the last minute.

The ENO Chorus were in glorious voice. The opera gives the chorus many opportunities, and the ENO Chorus took all of them firmly, delivering some superbly resonant tone and clearly having a great time in Vanity Fair.

Martyn Brabbins conducted with clear love for RVW's tricky work. He drew a finely grained performance from the ENO Orchestra. There were moments, particularly in the first half, that Brabbins allowed RVW's scoring too much head and balance with the voices was not ideal. But what he captured was the beauty and the inner mystical glow of RVW's score.

RVW's opera is a tricky piece, it is important for the way it intersects with his other mystical works. For admirers, his score is full of transcendentally beautiful moments which Brabbins and his team caught perfectly. The closing pages were deeply moving, only slightly marred by the off-stage chorus being rather obviously miked. But, I do wonder what non-RVW-believers thought. Oida's decision to de-Christianise the piece meant, I think, that it was rather less obvious what was going on. Though the staging was impressive, I don't think it work as a dramatic entity as well as Ward's staging (but then that was 20 years ago and has settled in memory with a warmly glorious glow).

I do hope that these performances were not a one-off,  you feel that Oida and his team would benefit from tweaking. And Roland Wood's performance deserves to be seen again and surely deserves to be captured on video.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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