English National Opera's new production of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim's Progress is a musical triumph. This 1951 work was the culmination of a lifetime's experience and the Vaughan Williams hallmarks – beautiful settings for voice and stirring orchestral colours – are present in abundance. Roland Wood heads a fine cast of young and established talent, and the orchestra sounds ravishing under Martyn Brabbins. In contrast, Yoshi Oïda's staging, while frequently beautiful and thought-provoking, is not entirely satisfying.
Despite diverging from Bunyan in several respects, Vaughan Williams’ work remains a linear journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. For Oïda, the first half is a reflection on the past, the Pilgrim revisiting why he is in prison. In the second half, he looks to the future, his death sentence and what lies beyond. Visually, the first half is dominated by prison bars and the backdrop of a giant, rusting wall. For the second half the backdrop is a giant skyscape. Allegories typically work when juxtaposed against the mundane detail of everyday life. The fact that we can recognise such characters as Mister and Madam By-Ends, Pliable and Timorous in our friends, foes and even ourselves is part of Bunyan's appeal over the centuries. In contrast, the specific back story is too ill-defined, and the situation too far removed from what we encounter daily, for us to find in it personal directions to the 'Holy Land'.
Roland Wood draws us in with a deep and moving performance as the Pilgrim. His legato singing is superb, especially in his Act Three monologue. The rest of the cast appear in multiple roles, with Benedict Nelson proving an impressive Evangelist, his baritone voice sounding so different to Wood’s own. Nelson’s singing as Watchful, the night porter, in House Beautiful is also one of the evening's highlights. Timothy Robinson is graceful and effortless both as the Interpreter and Mister By-Ends, while the Vanity Fair scene is a satisfyingly debauched and colourful affair. Ann Murray is a national treasure and it is a delight to hear her, if only in some relatively small cameo roles. The Three Shining Ones, Eleanor Dennis, Aoife O'Sullivan and Kitty Whately, shine very brightly indeed, and hopefully this marks the start of their ENO careers, while the contrast between earthly and heavenly choruses in Act Four is entrancing. The final word must go to Martyn Brabbins for leading the orchestra through the swoops and surges of the music, and for creating those magical moments when the orchestra falls silent leaving the solo vocal line to sound on. (Nik Dasgupta)
Until 28 November (seven performances) with start times of 18.30 and 19.30. Tickets (£16-99): 0871 911 0200 or from the ENO website.
Photo: The Pilgrim must withstand the temptations of Vanity Fair in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress, © Mike Hoban.