A jailhouse Pilgrim? It really rocks
The only previous professional staged performance of The Pilgrim’s Progress was at Covent Garden in 1951, and it was a failure. ‘They don’t like it, they won’t like it, and perhaps they never will like it,’ was Vaughan Williams’s pained response to the reception of a work that had preoccupied him for almost half a century.
Well, he would have enjoyed this production by English National Opera (London Coliseum) and felt vindicated. Perhaps he would have thought the contemporary prison setting a bit brutal, but what the hugely talented Japanese director Yoshi Oida and his team have done is triumphantly prove that VW had indeed written an opera and not just, as many observers thought, a static series of tableaux vivants.
Even VW himself had an each-way bet, calling the piece ‘a morality’ rather than an opera.
SKIRTING THE ISSUE: Lord Lechery played by Colin Judson in The Pilgrim’s Progress
Oida takes some liberties with the story but only in the best interests of dramatic impact. So, towards the end the three shepherds the Pilgrim meets on his way to the Delectable Mountains become a doctor, a priest and a jailer. And journey’s end for this Pilgrim is the electric chair. Not quite what the composer intended, but VW’s morality begins in prison and it makes dramatic sense for it to end there.
VW poured a lot of wonderful music into The Pilgrim’s Progress, by turns lyrical, mystical and violent, drawing, inter alia, on some of the most beautiful passages from his Bunyan-inspired Fifth Symphony. Every nuance was captured by Martyn Brabbins and his superb orchestra, while on stage, a dedicated cast, often multitasking, and led by Roland Wood’s eloquently dour jailbird-Pilgrim, projected the drama with real impact.
A genuine success this, illuminating a hidden English masterpiece. Maybe ENO should try it more often.
Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, South London’s premier symphony concert venue, celebrated its half-century in style with an eclectic 50th Anniversary Concert given by its resident orchestra, the London Mozart Players, under associate conductor Hilary Davan Wetton.
The hall is a bit dowdy and looks forward to its much-promised facelift.
But the acoustics of this mini Festival Hall are terrific, and the evening was for me, a regular visitor to concerts there in the Seventies, an exhilarating homecoming.
Roxanna Panufnik produced a celebratory fanfare and Malcolm Arnold’s Fair Field Overture, composed for the halls’ tenth anniversary, was joyously exhumed. Croydon’s most accomplished musical son, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was duly celebrated in this his centenary year, and the opening concert, where Yehudi Menuhin, no less, played the Bruch Violin Concerto, was commemorated with a splendid performance of the piece from Chloe Hanslip.
Davan Wetton is one of Britain’s finest choral conductors, and the concluding works, Parry’s Blest Pair Of Sirens and Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, were terrific, with the conductor getting the best out of some very young choristers.
Now to two albums of Elgar’s wartime music, suitable for Remembrance Sunday. At the end of 1915, Elgar was persuaded to write more than 80 minutes of incidental music to a whimsical children’s play by the ghost-story writer Algernon Blackwood called The Starlight Express.
The play wasn’t successful and the music, much of it enchanting, is unfairly neglected. It’s well performed here by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, with soloists Elin Manahan Thomas and Roderick Williams, (Chandos)
The problem is the format. Davis has written a narration, declaimed by Simon Callow, to accompany the music, and you wouldn’t want to hear it more than once. Which leaves a 40-minute orchestral suite on the second CD well worth returning to. But the price, about £18, makes this an expensive option.
Elgar’s The Longed-For Light, performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson (Somm) is better. The ballet The Sanguine Fan is interesting, the Polish potpourri Polonia is enjoyable, and the sombre little Sospiri (Sighs), composed in 1914, is premonitory of the suffering to come.
But the three settings of poetry by the Belgian exile Emile Cammaerts, again declaimed by Callow, don’t work. Wrenched from the context of British sympathy for the suffering of war-torn Belgium, the words often sound overwrought and overblown.