Vaughan Williams: Pilgrims Progress at the Three Choirs Festival | Live Review

Michael White
Friday, July 28, 2023

Vaughan Williams's theatre work really needs a theatre, but the British Youth Opera threw themselves into the drama


Vaughan Williams is standardly classified as someone who, for all his virtues as a composer of symphonies/songs/choral music, hadn’t the stage instinct to write effective opera. And chief witness for the prosecution on that point is Pilgrim’s Progress, his adaptation of John Bunyan’s classic spiritual allegory that tends to be dismissed as a white elephant of lyric theatre: shapeless, sprawling, pageant-like and dusty with outmoded symbolism in its narrative about the Christian path to righteousness.

Vaughan Williams wasn’t unaware of this, having spent half his life exploring ways to translate Bunyan into music. And when Pilgrim finally emerged in 1951, he fought shy of calling it  ‘opera’ – preferring the word ‘morality’ with its attendant associations of medieval morality plays like Noye’s Fludde, which Benjamin Britten would musicalise a few years later.

But unlike Noye, which was written to be performed in a church rather than a theatre, Pilgrim was written to be done in a theatre rather than a church, receiving its first performance at Covent Garden. So it was questionable that this year’s Three Choirs Festival decided to stage the piece in Gloucester Cathedral – though it isn’t hard to understand the reasons. Vaughan Williams was the festival’s featured composer for 2023; as a rarely staged work, Pilgrim’s Progress promised to be an audience draw as well a grand centre-piece to the season; and who could deny the thrill of hearing the score’s celestial grandeur amplified by so spectacular a space?

The cast of Pilgrims Progress, British Youth Opera | Photo: Dale Hodgetts

But the composer was right: for all its stately, ceremonial qualities (with whole sections that function more like liturgy than drama) Pilgrim is a theatre-work that needs a theatre. And there were problems with the way it happened here, on a platform in front of the choir-screen with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to one side and, on the other, an acting space where members of British Youth Opera delivered the show.

From my seat in a distant corner of the nave I couldn’t see much of the action, heard nothing of the text, and not enough of the voices. If they were singing and acting their hearts out, it barely reached me. And I found myself disengaged from a piece I happen to love – because for all its faults, Pilgrim has music of transcendent beauty and CAN work, as I recall from years past when the late Richard Hickox made a speciality of conducting it.

That said, the conductor here – the young and strikingly impressive Charlotte Corderoy – was in command of her material, holding the pace and keeping everything together. The RPO produced appropriately ethereal sounds. The staging, by Will Kerley, had the good sense to be simple and straightforward, with sets made out of wooden crates and charity-shop costumes. And the BYO singers clearly DID throw themselves into it, with a standout performance from baritone Ross Cumming in the title role. His Pilgrim was no cartoon hero but an Everyman: a truly human being who surmounts his human frailty, managing to struggle through the trials of life and grasp some meaning at the end of it. The voice was strong too, with unflagging vocal stamina (the Pilgrim is a big sing). An emerging talent to take note of.

'Strikingly impressive - conductor Charlotte Corderoy | Photo: Dale Hodgetts





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