I dreamed a Dream – it must be about four years ago now – that Vaughan Williams’s very selective, semi-operatic take on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress had enough in it to attain the celestial city of masterpiece status. I saw a man in the very likeness of a good pilgrim – Roderick Williams – and a conductor, Richard Hickox, whom I’d been wary of in dynamic, intensely rhythmic scores but who had the spiritual measure of the music. This was the Philharmonia performance, which turned out to be one of Hickox's last, at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, minimally but movingly staged by the director I knew so well from City Opera days, David Edwards.
It’s curious to look back on what I wrote then and see how drastically it differed from my experience of what might have been another work altogether at English National Opera last week. Very decently conducted it was by Martyn Brabbins, and the chorus seized their multiple roles with fervour. But it seemed to me that a lot of the music, especially in the first half, was mired in a handful of chord progressions or else horribly invertebrate. The male soloists weren’t a patch on their Philharmonia counterparts, and I now conclude – especially as I take my City Lit students through the Boult and Hickox recordings – that much of the spiritual inner light must have been missing, at least until the scene (composed by VW back in the 1920s, decades before the finished ceremonial) where Pilgrim meets the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains.
Musically that was so affecting in its restraint; but since director Yoshi Oida had the simple men got up as establishment figures – a priest, a lawyer and a doctor - telling prisoner Pilgrim to ready himself for death, the message was confused. As I thought it was throughout this very fitfully interesting interpretation of Bunyan’s allegorical dream. The prison walls and grills moved around the stage very malleably, and there is of course cause in the circumstances under which Bunyan wrote the work (in Bedford Gaol). Certain tableaux like the dramatically redundant and rather old-fashioned spectacle of Pilgrim’s setting out on the King’s Highway were visually interesting (ENO production photos by Mike Hoban).
Yet the prison re-enactment didn’t always mesh with the rest. That musically interminable conflict with fiend Apollyon seemed like a flimsy pretext for a bit of puppetry
while the Vanity Fair scene, which likewise came across as screamingly monotonous on the musical front as it had not at Sadler’s Wells, lavished a lot of expensive colourful costumes to an effect no naughtier than a camp carnival. There has to be threat here, doesn’t there?
Similarly the World War 1 footage in the second half, which often seemed hard pressed to remind us of the prison ritual, served only to nod rather vaguely at VW’s participation as stretcher-bearer. And the electric chair as gateway to paradise spelled out a messsage that was ambivalent at best. Roland Wood’s rather bottled baritone, doubling Bunyan and Pilgrim, improved as the evening wore on, but never touched any spiritual sympathy for me, and George von Bergen in various roles forced the voice into a colossal wobble. The celestial women were better, Eleanor Dennis especially, but never did I get any sense that VW had given anybody anything really grateful to sing.
There was cause for dread, then, that I’d allotted three classes on the work for my Opera in Focus course. But after one session – admittedly dealing with the best music apart from the Shepherds sequence, Act One – I felt much happier. There’s real radiance in Hickox’s Chandos recording, and it boasts Gerald Finley as Pilgrim alongside a stalwart supporting cast. We looked at the background of VW’s seminal work on the English Hymnal from 1904 to 1906, which in part ties in with his folksong hunt: it was fun to find the original, ‘Our Captain cried all hands’, of ‘He who would valiant be’ (the original text of which, beginning 'Who would true valour see', appears in the lesser-known Second Part of Bunyan's book, the journey of Christian/Pilgrim's wife Christiana and their four sons). I've chosen instead of 'Our captain' here the great Maddy Prior singing the hymn with consciousness of its roots.
Why, incidentally – and contrary to what’s twice stated in some factually dodgy ENO programme notes – does VW not use his original setting when ‘He who would valiant be’ pops up in the opera’s King’s Highway scene? It’s so much better than the alternative, which comes from I know not where. Anyway, I have such a soft spot for the Hymnal setting, as I do now for Bunyan’s book. It puzzles me why VW adapts so little of it, especially as he drafts in new 'types' (above all in the interminable Vanity Fair sequence) and even whole scenes. Some of Bunyan’s dialogues lose me, but I love the homespun, anyone-can-read-this approach to the fantastical. Bunyan’s most eloquent critic, as Alasdair Gray points out in his splendid Book of Prefaces, was Thomas Macaulay in the 1830 Edinburgh Review:
The vocabulary is the vocabulary of the common people. There is not an expression, if we except a few technical terms of theology, which would puzzle the rudest peasant. Many pages do not contain a single word of more than two syllables. Yet no writer has said more exactly what he meant to say. For magnificence, for pathos, for vehement exhortation, for every purpose of the poet, the orator and the divine, this homely dialect – the dialect of plain working men – was sufficient. There is no book in our literature which shows how rich the old unpolluted English language is in its own proper wealth, and how little it has been improved by all it has borrowed.
And to think that Milton’s Paradise Lost, the antithesis of Bunyan, had appeared only a decade earlier. I wonder if something of what Macaulay writes about doesn’t hover behind the purpose of Vaughan Williams’s sacred rite too. So much depends on the dedication of the performers. The same goes for the composer's perhaps greater symphonies. I don't always melt to the Romanza of the Fifth Symphony - part of which corresponds to the 'House Beautiful' sequence of the opera - but it shines with a rare light in the late Vernon Handley's phenomenal performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.