Im a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Chorus of War
In the new production at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), director Jonathan Cocker sets Vaughan Williams' opera (first performed in 1951) in the First World War. This results in some stunning set and costume design by Bob Bailey and lighting by Ian Sommerville.
Edward Robinson as the Pilgrim. Photo: Robert Workman
The bare trees, sandbags and jagged ground evoke the dynamic Vorticist paintings of Wyndham Lewis, such as A Battery Shelled (1919), the parched soil of Paul Nash and the unforgettable oil painting of blinded soldiers in Gassed by John Singer Sargent (1919).
The flashing lights in the background convey what Wilfred Owen called "the monstrous anger of the guns."
It is this nightmare world that the Pilgrim (Edward Robinson) is thrown into. Edward Robinson sustains the intensity of the role for the duration of the opera, in which he is ever-present on stage.
'The Menin Road' (1918) by Paul Nash Public domain. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
The problem is not with the performance but with the character itself. The libretto is by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with interpolations from the Bible and verses by Ursula Vaughan Williams (the composer's second wife).
It is text-heavy with biblical quotations which is not a problem in itself but it leaves little space for any three-dimensional characters to emerge.
The libretto is also burdened with the Pilgrim telling us how he feels at given moments - rather than it emerging from the music and a more poetic turn of phrase. "The thoughts of these things make me cry," he informs us at one point.
A scene where the First World War setting adds an extra dimension is when the Pilgrim is presented with the Staff of Salvation before he ventures into no-man's land. The presence of the Mayor and a marching band remind us of how advocates of war often frame the carnage as a noble fight against a demonic enemy-people.
It is complemented by a stunning scene where dead soldiers' arms emerged out of the jagged ground - as if one of the artist Stanley Spencer's murals has been brought to life.
Peter Lidbetter gives a commanding performance as the Evangelist - in the guise of an army commander. He makes the most of some of the best music in the opera.
Ralph Vaughan Williams gives the baritone a deeply foreboding presence which even hints at moral ambiguity. It has the atmosphere of Mozart's Il Commendatore dragging Don Giovanni to hell or Darth Vader making his first appearance in Star Wars.
The second half opens with the most colourful scene (in more ways than one.) We are in the world of Vanity Fair with all its topsy-turvy morality. Madam Wanton (Clare Hood) and Madam Bubble (Naomi Rogers) loom over the Pilgrim but there is no real sense of jeopardy because we know that our hero will never succumb to these carnal temptations.
"He made light of our merchandise," complains the Rasputin-like Lord Lechery (Andrew Masterson). It should be funny but the comedy gets lost in the sermonising.
The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) was written by John Bunyan. while he was in prison for violations of the Conventicle Act of 1664, which made it illegal to hold religious meetings of five or more people outside the Church of England
His Nonconformist preaching had fallen foul of Charles II and the restored monarchy of 1660, after Oliver Cromwell's rule.
'The Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan - Yale University copy of third edition., Public Domain,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61676667
The opening scene of the opera is a direct reference to Bunyan's imprisonment. Vaughan Williams kept a copy of the book with him while he served as a medical orderly and a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
The opera (or 'morality' as Vaughan Williams called it) is worth seeing for its wonderful musical contrasts and crescendos. The setting and design in this RNCM production is almost worth the ticket price alone.
If the libretto had less sermonising and more nuanced, character and wit it would no doubt be revived more often.