English National Opera's new production of Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress highlights the company's commitment to celebrating great 20th century British opera. Yoshi Oïda's directorial debut with ENO marks the first full professional staging of Vaughan Williams's seminal work since its premiere at the 1951 Festival of Britain. The waiting is finally over.
Vaughan Williams spent 40 years of his life perfecting The Pilgrim's Progress - a sublime "morality" that charts the trials, tribulations, temptations and revelations that Bunyan's questing Pilgrim encounters on his physical and spiritual progress, from the world to that which is to come. The opera is based on the original two-part book of the same title, an extended Christian allegory by John Bunyan, published in the late 1600s. Although Vaughan Williams was a self-professed agnostic, he wrote in a letter in May 1951 that he wanted the music to "apply to anyone who aims at a spiritual life".
ENO - The Pilgrim's Progress. ENO Chorus with Roland Wood (Pilgrim) and Timothy Robinson (The Interpreter) centre L-R (c) Mike Hoban
The two main parts seem to concentrate on two different journeys that a pilgrim, or any of us, embarks on a quest: a physical one and a spiritual one. "All of us are prisoners," Yoshi Oida, the director, says for The Telegraph. "Prisoners of our own experience, our societies, our culture and education. How do we find real freedom, and how do we get out of the biggest prison of them all - the fear of death? "So our production of The Pilgrim's Progress takes place within a prison, but not a very solid one. This is a prison where the walls move and the doors open, a prison which changes its character and identity - because the story is a dream, Bunyan's dream, and he tells the story with the help of other prisoners. But we don't want to be tied down to that concept, and there will be no sense of any single historical period in the setting. There is room for imagination." Drawing on traditional Japanese Noh theatre, actor, film and theatre director Yoshi Oïda's highly original technique bridges Eastern and Western theatrical methods creating an exceptionally well-crafted and visually stunning mise en scene with the collaboration of the Dutch set designer, Tom Schenk.
The wording is exquisitely beautiful: the Key of Promise, the Wicket Gate, the Celestial City, the Doleful Creatures, and a constant array of highly imaginative characters and places. The structure might come across as eclectic, but the music and the text is so moving and sublime that it does not matter. I hope that the ENO can firmly establish Williams's work as a 21st-century masterpiece.
The Pilgrim's Progress opens at the London Coliseum on 5 November for 7 performances - November 5, 9, 16, 20, 22 & 28 at 7.30pm and Nov 24 at 6.30pm. For more information please visit the website: http://www.eno.org