Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Pilgrim’s Progress @ Sadler’s Wells, London

20, 22 June 2008

The Philharmonia’s year-long “Pioneering Pilgrim” programme is a major contribution to the Vaughan Williams 50th Anniversary celebration.

Under Richard Hickox and with an extraordinary line-up of mostly homegrown singing talent, the first of two performances of the rarely-performed The Pilgrim’s Progress at Sadler’s Wells proved something of a treat.

“Semi-staged” is a term used to cover anything from singers shuffling around on a podium to the full costume and movement treatment that has characterised Glyndebourne’s visits to the Proms in recent years. David Edward’s semi-staging of The Pilgrim’s Progress was closer to the latter and, with the Philharmonia banked on rostra upstage, there was a sizeable apron for the cast to work on.

If there was a literalness to much of the staging, it reflected Vaughan Williams’ treatment of the source material, a straightforward illustration of John Bunyan’s poem, which hardly rises above the sophistication of the school nativity play. It would require a radical approach from a master playwright to carve this morality tale into anything of dramatic weight. The composer always insisted that it is a full-blown stage work rather than an oratorio but, as witnessed in ENO’s production of Sir John in Love a few years ago, his theatrical instincts were not as sharp as his musical ones.

Given the problems inherent in turning the work into a staged presentation, what we saw here all the cast in some semblance of costume, subtle lighting, use of both auditorium and stage and a handful of props is perhaps as much as the work needs.

Neal Davies’ imprisoned Bunyan, who bookends the work, lay prone upon a mattress as the audience entered, so it was unfortunate for him that the curtain was delayed by nearly half an hour due to a cast member (Sarah Fox) being stuck in traffic. Eventually the show began with the soprano still making her away along the King’s Cross Highway and Susan Bailey Gilmour standing in.

The spiritual voyage of Bunyan’s pilgrim is a good deal more earnest and less colourful than that of Dante’s, with not much in the way of the humour and lightness of touch of The Divine Comedy. In the first two acts, despite the use of themes familiar from the lovely Fifth Symphony, the overall effect is of a picture painted in shades of grey. The frequent use of interludes and intermezzi, necessary for the open curtain/close curtain dramatic structure, sweeps us again and again into the symphonic realm, reminding us of the composer’s lack of theatrical flair. It’s only in the Fafneresque booming of the monster Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation that we get any real dramatic height or depth.

Everything is considerably loosened in the second half, where Ms Fox, having overcome her own tortuous journey, lent her voluptuous charms, alongside those of mezzo Pamela Helen Stephen, to the seductive wares on offer at Vanity Fair. It may be a clich to say that vice is more easily-portrayed and certainly more entertaining than goodness something that will really be put to the test during six hours of Messiaen’s meditation on the life of St Francis at the Proms this year but things really came to life with this scene, dominated by the masculine charisma and swagger of Gidon Sak’s Lord Hate-Good.

The comedy of the Mr and Mrs By-Ends episode (Richard Coxon and Andrea Baker) adds variety and, while one wants to get away from the view of Vaughan Williams as essentially a pastoral composer, the Delectable Mountain scene is one of outstanding natural beauty.

Richard Hickox led a glowing performance from a relatively small-force Philharmonia. In addition to those already mentioned, the astonishing cast included Matthew Rose, Matthew Brook, Timothy Robinson, Sarah Tynan, James Gilchrist, Robert Hayward and Andrew Kennedy, each dipping and diving from one cameo to another. It was as talented a gathering as one could expect and, towering above all, was Roderick Williams’ richly sung and sympathetic Pilgrim. This singer, who is now establishing himself as a major talent, was as good a representative of Everyman as we’d wish.

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