24 November 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress at the ENO

I like to go to performances unprepared and this time I was doubly so.My knowledge of Vaughan Williams' music is limited, the only thing I have on CD is the Antarctic Symphony (his seventh), and I have never read John Bunyan's book that provides the inspiration and title.

I was not taking much of a risk this time as I booked a seat up in the Balcony for a modest £25. At that price it did not have to be that good.

The Coliseum was packed so I guess that some people had some idea of what to expect.

The opera opens in a prison where we meet John Bunyan completing his book. He starts to read from it and the protagonist, Pilgrim, then appears. Bunyan fades from view and Pilgrim starts his journey that is the narrative.

The music is as wonderful as I had hoped. It is very similar in mood to the Antarctic Symphony which is not that surprising given that the symphony premièred in 1952 just one year after the opera. The music sweeps through long passages slowly, grandly and beautifully.

This beauty is not matched by the story.

Pilgrim is beset by challenges and temptations and the production reflects this with bleak industrial colours and staging.

The main element of the stage is a set of metal components that, like Meccano, combine in multiple ways to make prisons, bridges and other structures that defy categorisation.

I like industrial stuff and I liked this, though I normally associate such a look with the harsh rhythmic music of, say, Rammstein or Vladimír Hirsch. Not the slow symphonic sounds of Williams.

The bridges were a neat trick creating processional routes for the journey. There was a strong whiff of Victorian railways here, and that is not a bad thing either.

The one uplifting moment and the one splash of colour comes when Pilgrim visits Vanity Fair.

The characters that he meets here include Lord Lechery and Madam Wanton. These are all people off ill-repute who try to tempt Pilgrim who resists and gets jailed for his refusal.

In pantomime the baddies wear black so that you know that they are the baddies so it seems at odds to have everybody in grey apart from the baddies. If this is meant to be an advertisement for Christianity then it's a strange one as the only people who have fun all evening are the children of Beelzebub.

Pilgrim escapes from prison and resumes his journey but I had lost interest in the thin plot by then. The music easily sustained my interest though.

The piece feels more like an oratorio than an opera, something more along the lines of The Dream of Gerontius than Billy Budd, to pick two notable works by other English composers. And I think it would have worked just as well, if not better, as a concert performance where we could all have focused on the music and ignored the metal cages.

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