Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Pilgrim's Progress, ENO

Ralph Vaughan-Williams' own Bühnenweihfestspiel, A Pilgrim's Progress is more oratorio than opera. The Passions of Bach -the St. John Passion been fully staged by the company - are evident in the dialogue and the aesthetic bulwark of Nicholas Lehnhoff's tremendous production of Parsifal also hang in the Coliseum in spectral solidarity. Solidarity is what this ascetic (though not necessarily economical) production of Yoshi Oida is about. Set in an anonymous jail the eponymous Pilgrim seems to have been set in isolation from the other inmates. Seems, as his first words prepare us for the extemporal nature of his experience, of the story: 'So I awoke and behold it was a dream'. He recalls the nature of his experiences, whether in the jail or outside in life, prior to his incarceration and these expand - with the help of jail walls constructed of moving set-trucks - to take in the other inmates, who play out the characters in his recollections, or the tropes of Everyman's experience.

One of Oida's fine decisions is to keep the on stage action steady and minimal. The quality of the production is reliant on its singing. Roland Wood in the title role may offer the finest baritone singing I've heard (in patchy attendance!) since Roderick Williams breathed life into Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin three years ago. The almost mandatory production paraphernalia that both big houses in London employ do make a showing here, in the rags that become a megaphoned-monster, which is highly effective. Sue Wilmington's costume designs are similarly pared down and effective... notwithstanding the riotously gaudy Vanity Fair scene, recalling the orgy of the recent Flying Dutchman (or indeed Turandot) on the same stage. This struck me as excessive, given that the production was working on the credibility elastic of the inmates assuming roles - would they really have been able to conjure such an inventory of colour and costume?

Restraint never failed the pit though. Martin Brabbins triumphed with the house orchestra keeping the swollen orchestration held back. The powerfully English sonorities, pastoral-mystic modality and tidal unendlische melodie once again recalls Parsifal but with the conviction and post-war decorousness that sets it apart from Wagner's drama of itinerant faith - or indeed Britten's contemporaneous oratorio on 'the pity of war', the War Requiem, another meditation on the transmigration of souls.

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