Ralph Vaughan Williams may best be known for his “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” A Sea Symphony, “Five Mystical Songs,” and A Lark Ascending. His opera (or Morality as he called it) Pilgrim’s Progress, which emerges from near-oblivion every few decades, hardly skyrocketed him to fame. Its most recent New England performance came 12 years ago through the efforts of many of the same forces as this production, including Gloriæ Dei Cantores and Elements Theatre Company. The opera constitutes the crown jewel of an international symposium commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, held at the majestic Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts.
The composer is said to have carried a copy of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan in the inside pocket of his uniform when he served in World War I. Yet, even before that, he conceived the idea of making an opera or “Morality” out of Bunyan’s 17th-century Christian allegory about a man’s journey from the “City of Destruction,” to the “Celestial City.” Four plus decades later, he brought the idea to fruition for a 1951 premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when he was nearly 80. The gargantuan blend of opera and oratorio him took some 45 years to compose. With its 40-person main cast, a 60-person chorus, and a full orchestra—almost a 1 to 1 ratio with the audience, it is an enormous—and enormously pricey—show. Complete with almost 300 original costumes, countless rehearsal hours, and a huge number of singers with whom to organize rehearsals, it required a village of volunteers to help out. Their collective efforts paid off in spades: gorgeous music sung and played beautifully in a glorious mise en scene.
To ”universalize” Bunyan’s allegory, Vaughan Williams changed the central character’s name from Christian to Pilgrim. This production’s director, Danielle Dwyer, describes this opera as fusing, three centuries: the work of Bunyan and Vaughan Williams and “their zeal, conviction, and unswerving faith in the spiritual journey of the human soul.” Its unusually striking Christian imagery seems slightly less than universal, but that is a small quibble.
Numerous things strike the audience upon walking into church’s huge performance space—the entire transcept and nave areas of the Church of the Transfiguration. The director illuminated mosaic, paintings and sculptures at momentous times in the opera, and on the long stage as many as 130 people appeared. From behind a screen, the large orchestra enlivened the space with detailed, responsive and handsome tones. Harpist Jane Soh, oboists Daniel Stackhouse and Jane Murray and bassoonist Daniel Beilman made particularly distinctive and moving contributions. Two huge panels (with a small one in the middle) serve as the backdrop for shimmeringly beautiful, ever-changing evocative landscapes which illustrates the pilgrim’s journey and evoke scenes of nature, including moving waterfalls, stalactites and stalgmites, mountains and valleys, and dreamscapes galore. For visual delights alone, it’s worth seeing this show. With all the non-stop singing, light design, architecture, orchestral colors (which Vaughan Williams does so very well), the chorus’s garb and synchronized dancelike movements, provocative literary and biblical texts, one got a real sense of Gesamtkunstwerk. The principals’ costumes and masks absolutely stunned. The hair and make-up people outdid themselves, deploying a pharmacy’s worth of iridescent foundation—just perfect for a production on the weekends straddling Halloween.
Kudos for the ravishing choral singing, so integral to the opera, to their music director, Richard K. Pugsley who also excelled in the fraught role of Pilgrim. He is Artistic Director and conductor of Gloriae de Cantores, and also sang Pilgrim in the 2005 New England Premiere. Baritone John E. Orduña brought fervency to the roles of Evangelist and Shepherd; bass-baritone Andrew Nolan essayed Apollyon and Lord Hate-Good with both clarity and expressitvity. (Here, the reviewer must pause to admit one of her favorite aspects of book, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” are the names of people and places- Slough of Despond, the Delectable Mountains—and characters—walking allegories—with names like Lord Lechery, Madame Bubble, Madam Wanton, Pliable and Obstinate, and Mister and Madam By- Ends, portrayed in honeyed tones to comic perfection by tenor Aaron Sheehan and Sr. Estelle Cole). The balance of the large cast, interacted effectively with real acting chops and vocal commitment. The small army of seamstresses deserve separate applause, and the many visual effects made theatrical coups.
Conductor: James E. Jordan
Chorus Master: David Chalmers
Director: Danielle Dwyer
Projections designer: S. Katy Designer
Lighting designer: Scott Stipetic, Shane Cassidy
Those who love Vaughan Williams’s music should progress in a pilgrimage to the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, where the run continues Nov. 3rd and 4th.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.