From its first performance in 1951, “The Pilgrim's Progress
,” an opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams has suffered from a checkered history on stage. Its Covent Garden premiere was criticized for its lack of “theatricality,” and the attempt at a revival the following year was a failure.
A subsequent and successful performance by the Royal Northern College of Music of Vaughan Williams’ “morality,” as he preferred to call it, and probably saved the piece from being assigned to musical oblivion. And, it was the same John Noble who sang the Pilgrim in 1954 who sung the role for the 1971 recording by Sir Adrian Boult for EMI/Angel.
The late conductor Richard Hickox championed “Pilgrim” with a Chandos recording in 1998 and a Sadler Wells performance in 2008, but it wasn’t fully staged again in the UK until 2012. The English National Opera production was praised for its music but, once again, questions about its “dramatic viability” were raised by the critics.
Those of us who greatly admired the recordings of “The Pilgrim's Progress” and knew about its rocky performance history have wondered if a concert performance was the best way to hear what is one of this composers’ masterpieces. I can now safely claim, however, that such a conclusion would be wrong. The performances held on October 27 and 28 at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, prove that "The Pilgrim's Progress" is indeed an opera, and a very good one.
The internationally known choir Gloriae Dei Cantores and the Elements Theatre Company combined with invited soloists and members of the Community of Jesus to mount this production with 40 in the cast, 60 in the chorus, and a full orchestra, providing a near one-to-one ratio of audience to performers inside the cathedral-like Church of the Transfiguration, itself a wonder to behold.
Dr. James Jordan conducted with a fully idiomatic feel for various sound worlds of Vaughan Williams. The opera was written over a space of 40 years, thus, containing the pantheistic majesty of the 1st “Sea” Symphony (1910), the English pastoralism of the 3rd Symphony (1921), the dissonant anxieties of the 4th (1935) and 6th (1948), the probing, inward spirituality of the 5th (1943), and the roguish charm of the Tudor Portraits (1935). The orchestral soloists, in particular, rose to the occasion when the musical narrative fell to them alone.
Director Sr. Danielle Dwyer, however, has to be congratulated on demonstrating the true operatic nature of Vaughan Williams “morality.” Employing three screens as backdrops, Sr. Danielle worked with projection designer Kay Tucker to create a backdrop that not only provided a dramatic visual context but also kept the audience oriented to the Pilgrim’s place in the journey.
Given the performance space of the nave and the choirs, the stage was placed on one side of the aisle and the audience on the other. The stage created by placing one fixed platform in the middle and two movable ones to the sides. The 300 original costume designs were an integral part to the performance’s visual impact.
Whoever it was who criticized the lack of “theatricality” in the work’s premiere would have to eat his words after seeing this production. Soloists, chorus, and cast members moved back and forth the length of stage, often within arm's length of the front row of the audience. They sang, danced, contorted, prayed, tempted, and convincingly blandished swords and staffs.
But "The Pilgrim’s Progress" cannot work without great singing and lots of it — there are over 41 solo roles. But even more challenging is the need to have tenors, baritones, and sopranos who can sing the composer’s sometimes subtle, sometimes soaring, melodies with firm pitch and legato. On that score, they all delivered.
Richard R. Pugsley fully embodied the anguish and searching Pilgrim and made the most of Vaughan Williams' greatest moments, such as the encounter with the “Shepherds on the Hill” which was musically thrilling. Paul Scholten, playing both John Bunyan, who appears at the beginning and the end, and one of those Shepherds, but he also delivered the famous “Watchful’s Song” with complete authority and tender beauty. John. E. Orduña’s playing the demanding role of the Evangelist never wavered, singing the demanding role, lying high in the baritone range, with ringing security and felt devotion.
At the other end of the morality scale came Lord Lechery who was deliciously, and unapologetically, portrayed by Doug Jones. Andrew Nolen used his beautiful base to be appropriately menacing as Apollyon and bring a dandyish charm to Lord Hategood. Aaron Sheehan was a comic and vocal standout as the disingenuous Mister By-Ends and well-partnered by Sr. Melody Edmonds his Madam By-Ends. Br. Richard Cragg who sang the Interpreter and one of the Shepherds showed particular sensitivity in the vocal lines he shared with the Pilgrim. Soprano Eleni Calenos sung the roles of the Branch Bearer and the Voice of the Bird effortlessly, her high notes firm and clear. (However, her “Bird’s Song,” sung from behind the screen could have been less covered by the men’s voices on stage.)
Special mention should be made of the Gloriae Dei Cantores’ contribution to the performance — every chorus was delivered with a precision of beauty that would compare to the world’s greatest choirs. Along with Jordan’s conducing, they created a seamless operatic performance out of an opera long thought to be dramatically episodic. Bravo!
"The Pilgrim's Progress" will be repeated on November 3 and 5 at the Church of the Transfiguration. Call 508-240-2400 for tickets.
Dr. Deal W. Hudson took over Crisis Magazine in 1995, leaving in 2010 to become president of Catholic Advocate. While at Crisis, Hudson led the Catholic voter outreach for President George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and later advised the campaigns of both John McCain and Donald Trump on Catholic outreach. In 2014, he began his weekly two-hour radio show, "Church and Culture," on the Ave Maria Radio Network, and launched www.thechristianreview.com in 2015. His books include "Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction" and "Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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