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Music Pages

Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress at ENO

8 November 2012, London, UK

Riot of colour: the Vanity Fair scene in ENO's staging of 'The Pilgrim's Progress'
Riot of colour: the Vanity Fair scene in ENO's staging of 'The Pilgrim's Progress'(Photo: Mike Hoban)

A sense of adventure lies at the heart of English National Opera’s programming in its current season. The company’s latest offering is a real rarity: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress. Based on John Bunyan’s allegorical novel, the work premiered in 1951 at the Festival of Britain and hasn’t had a professional staging since. It needs huge resources, with 41 solo roles and large choral and orchestra forces that only a true ensemble company such as ENO can muster.

ENO’s production shows that Pilgrim’s Progress is an important and underrated addition to the English operatic canon.  The swirling, luminous score is full of episodes that are quintessential Vaughan Williams – think of The Lark Ascending combined with the Mass in G minor to get a flavour of the music.

At ENO, Japanese director Yoshi Oïda (who worked with Peter Brooks’ theatre in Paris) approached the work with great respect and reverence. Vaughan Williams didn’t think of Pilgrim’s Progress as an opera – more an introspective musing on life and death. Oïda’s measured, ritualistic pacing and Tom Schenk’s austere prison setting reflect the rigorous moral framework of the piece. It can feel more like an extended church service than an opera: some sections are movingly meditative, but there are episodes that oppress you with their worthy piety, while others sweep you up in a sense of spiritual rapture.

Sue Willmington went to town on the costumes for the Vanity Fair scene – a rude riot of circus colour in an otherwise sober world. The monster Apollyon was an especially impressive creation, fashioned out of ragged odds and ends.

There was some very fine singing, especially from Roland Wood as a steadfast, serious Pilgrim. ENO used the large cast as an opportunity to showcase some excellent young talent: Kitty Whately, Alexander Sprague, Aiofe O’Sullivan and George von Bergen were particularly notable in the plethora of solo roles for a generation of operatic debutants. ENO’s orchestra were the heroes of occasion, with inspiring, sonorous playing under the unflinching baton of Martyn Brabbins.

Monday night saw the opening of this hugely anticipated new production at ENO which runs at the Coliseum in London until 28 November. Here is a round-up of what the press have said so far...

‘A performance that shines like a beacon in the night’
Daily Telegraph ****

‘This is ENO back at their best’

‘Musically it’s a triumph’
Evening Standard

‘The stagecraft is wonderfully expert’
The Guardian

‘The singing is good and Martyn Brabbins’s orchestra is silky smooth’
The Metro

‘The orchestra and chorus make it seem sumptuous’
The Guardian

‘Martyn Brabbins’s exemplary musical direction... the orchestra plays beautifully’
The Times

‘Roland Wood... a solo performance of such warmth and richness’
The Independent


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