The Pilgrim’s Progress, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2012Posted on 6 November 2012
John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, was imprisoned in the early 1660s for abstaining from Anglican church services and preaching at unlawful meetings — such things being no longer the vogue they were round the campfires of Cromwell’s army — and this opera starts with him in prison. There he dreams, and we follow his journey from the wicket gate onwards to the celestial city.
The first performance of this opera, in 1951 at Covent Garden, was a great disappointment to its composer Vaughan Williams, but this production by Yoshi Oïda works beautifully. The sets are simple, uncrowded, and the music and words are free to speak for themselves. The movement of characters is cleverly done, and there are wonderful theatrical effects such as Apollyon as a gigantic garbage-monster. After rising from his sleep this mutant fiend comes threateningly close to killing the Pilgrim, temporarily represented by a puppet, but he rises again to defeat Apollyon and then encounters Vanity Fair. This was a riot of colour: nuns in corsets and fishnet stockings, transvestites, bi-gendered people and much more, but Lord Hate-Good arrives to condemn the Pilgrim to prison.
Starting the second part we hear those famous lines My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me, with images of war appearing on a small screen. This screen later shows the waters the Pilgrim must cross to reach the celestial city, and blindfolded he sings Preserve me from the deep waters … They are waters of death. Few mortals have traversed them and lived: Gilgamesh, Odysseus … but this is all a dream and the Pilgrim is back where he started, in prison.
Roland Wood gave a fine performance of the main role, and the chorus were magnificent. Other singers took multiple roles in the vast cast of characters, and Timothy Robinson sang and acted strikingly well, as did Ann Murray. Martyn Brabbins conducted with a glorious sweep giving a meditative rapture to the music. Yet this is opera, not oratorio, and Yoshi Oïda’s sensitive production is a thoroughly fulfilling theatrical experience.
The hero in Bunyan’s original is named Christian, but Vaughan Williams changed this to The Pilgrim, creating a drama that applies beyond Christianity. As the music started I was reminded of the story when U.S. ambassador Wendy Chamberlin took over the Pakistan mission, two days after the September 11 attacks. President Musharraf told her that jihad once had the meaning of a personal struggle against perceived weaknesses rather than the massacre of perceived enemies, and it is the sense of personal struggle that comes through in this production. Another success for the ENO — not to be missed.
Performances continue until November 28 — for details click here.