Ralph Vaughan Williams spent so many years (45 to be precise) preparing his setting of John Bunyan's allegory that he continually borrowed from the other works that he composed over this time. Consequently, 'The Pilgrim's Progress' presents something of a musical compendium, offering snatches of, among others, his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, plus the 'Tallis' and 'Greensleeves' Fantasias.
VW declined to call the work an opera but rather a 'morality'. This may well have been as a response to the faint praise it received at its premiere (at the Royal Opera House, as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain – the last time it was professionally fully staged). And, he was right to do so, for despite its title, there is little progress made dramatically. The piece unfolds like an oratorio, the libretto presenting a somewhat dull sermon about the Christian life. Fortunately, it is all set to VW's rapturous music.
In the title role of this English National Opera production, baritone Roland Wood begins rather uptight vocally, before loosening up and becoming both engaging and coherent. In director Yoshi Oïda's vision, the Pilgrim is a death-row prisoner who makes a dream journey through the rigours of temptation from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, emerging purified and redeemed – albeit executed and, one presumes, resurrected along the way.
Tom Schenk's set designs allow the many scenes to transform and unfold seemlessly. His prison of tall, burnished bars frame the space in which some rather genteel prisoners take their turns as various allegorical characters. Benedict Nelson, resembling a moustachioed 1940s spiv, gives a modest though tuneful account as the Evangelist. Elsewhere, there are some impressive ENO debuts – sopranos Aoife O'Sullivan and Eleanor Dennis and mezzo Kitty Whately make the most of their various roles, particularly as The Shining Ones. Baritone George von Bergen also shines as a particularly powerful Herald. Meanwhile, veterans Timothy Robinson and Ann Murray have much fun with their comical characters.
Oïda (a member of Peter Brook's company) tells the tale through multimedia, the singing enlivened with puppets and video (though unnecessary harrowing WWI footage strikes an uneven register), all within a 'Jailhouse Rock'-style setting.
The orchestra plays handsomely under consummate conductor Martyn Brabbins, the brass section being particularly robust. The Chorus, too, were on great form, livening up the otherwise demure proceedings with the spectacle of 'Vanity Fair' – where everything the world has to offer is for sale – here resembling something from 'The Kenny Everett Television Show' – an amusingly decadent concoction of the weird and wonderful.