Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Making Music with a Moral ; Revival of Opera Version of 'Pilgrim's Progress' Exalts Faith and Virtue

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Making Music with a Moral ; Revival of Opera Version of 'Pilgrim's Progress' Exalts Faith and Virtue

Article excerpt

A rare revival of Ralph Vaughan Williams's opera based on "The Pilgrim's Progress" exalts faith and virtue.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is said to have carried a copy of "The Pilgrim's Progress" by John Bunyan with him when he served in World War I. Before that, he conceived the idea of making an opera out of this 17th-century Christian allegory about a man's journey from the "City of Destruction," to the "Celestial City," and decades later he brought the idea to fruition for a 1951 premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when he was nearly 80.

Opera composers have often turned to religion for subject matter, in many cases simply to set up conflicts between opposing cultures. Yet some operas do achieve a degree of religious spirituality, at least in part. Much of the music of Wagner's "Parsifal" seeks to create an aura of religious ecstasy, even though much about its plot is unsettling, especially its cultish aspect.

In its own way, "The Pilgrim's Progress" is about attaining a similar state of religious bliss, but one motivated by simple faith and virtue. In his allegory, Bunyan speaks through his protagonist, whom he called Christian, and when watching Vaughan Williams's opera, which is now enjoying a rare revival at the English National Opera, it is easy to think that its protagonist speaks for Vaughan Williams.

In fact, the composer was a principled agnostic, who changed Christian's name to Pilgrim in a modest step toward universality. Vaughan Williams always maintained that "The Pilgrim's Progress" was an opera, even though he called it a "Morality." Still, where most operas treat religion disinterestedly, "The Pilgrim's Progress" unabashedly sides with the Pilgrim in stressing the righteousness of his journey.

Vaughan Williams had considerable experience as a composer for the Anglican church and tapped into that experience wholeheartedly in writing "The Pilgrims Progress," including borrowing from his own music and that of others, like Thomas Tallis. The opera presents a virtual compendium of Vaughan Williams's work. It begins with a hymn tune played in harmony by the brass. Thereafter, simple English- style folk melodies, expressive choruses on and offstage, shimmering sounds from the strings, stirring martial music and a triplet figure embedded the melodic writing are among the ways the composer characterizes the object of the Pilgrim's devotion.

Vaughan Williams, who prepared his own libretto, set obstacles for the Pilgrim to overcome in making his journey, including a clash with the monster Apollyon and a Vanity Fair scene obsessed with portraying human decadence in many forms. Still, such scenes only marginally give dramatic energy to essentially nondramatic material. It is to the producer Yoshi Oida's credit that he makes a decent case for performing "The Pilgrim's Progress" in an opera house rather than a church. …

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