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Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress

Duration:
3 hours, 15 minutes
First broadcast:
Saturday 24 November 2012

Live from English National Opera

Presented by Martin Handley

John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress was first read to Vaughan Williams as a young boy in the 1870's and the gripping story and vivid imagery stayed with the composer throughout the rest of his life culminating in his opera which he finished in 1951 - seventy years later.

Vaughan Williams own religious views were complex - as the son of an Anglican vicar and a relative of Charles Darwin they probably couldn't be anything else. When he was an undergraduate he professed to being an atheist but always mantained a spiritual side even if he wasn't a practicing Christian. He wrote a Mass and took on the job of editing the English Hymnal and included his own hymn tune 'York' in the opening bars of the Pilgrim's Progress. Vaughan Williams wrote his own libretto and in his hands Bunyan's tale becomes universal - Christian becomes Pilgrim and all references to Christ are missing from what the composer said was a 'morality' rather than an opera, in doing so Bunyan's Christian story becomes something much more universal.

Bunyan's tale is a dream of a quest with Bunyan himself as the dreamer and the pilgrim his alter ego who overcomes trials and tribulations on the real and symbolic journey from his home in the 'City of Destruction' to the 'Celestial City'. Along the way he receives guidance from the Evangelist, meets objections from his four neighbours Obstinate, Pliable, Mistrust and Timorous, is given succour at the House Beautiful before fighting and defeating the fiend Apollyon. He is imprisoned after false evidence is presented against him when he refuses to be seduced by the flesh and material delights of Vanity Fair. Escaping he continues on his way, Mr and Mrs By-Ends refuse to join him as they will only continue when the path is easy, Pilgrim pushes on aided by 'The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains' who point him straight at the gates of the Celestial City where Christian finds eternal salvation.

Yoshi Oida's acclaimed new production for English National Opera is set in Bunyan's prison - with baritone Roland Wood playing the roles of both Pilgrim and John Bunyan and Bunyan's fellow prisoners taking on all the other parts from the serene spiritual guides of the House Beautiful through to the gaudy pleasure seekers of Vanity Fair.

Pilgrim/John Bunyan........................................................Roland Wood (baritone)
Evangelist/Watchful/First Shepherd...............................Benedict Nelson (baritone)
Obstinate/Herald/Lord Hate-Good.............................George von Bergen (baritone)
Interpreter/Usher/Mr By-Ends/Second Shepherd..........Timothy Robinson (tenor)
Timorous/Lord Lechery/Messenger.....................................Colin Judson (tenor)
Pliable/Superstition/Celestial Voice 1.........................Alexander Sprague (tenor)
Mistrust/Apollyon/Envy/Third Shepherd.........................Mark Richardson (bass-baritone)
First Shining One/Madam Wanton/Voice of a Bird/Celestial Voice 3.....................................Eleanor Dennis (soprano)
2nd Shining One/ Branch-Bearer/ Malice.........................Aoife O'Sullivan (soprano)
Third Shining One/Cup-bearer/Pickthank/Woodcutter's Boy.............................................................Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano)
Madam Bubble/Mrs By-Ends/Celestial Voice 2.......................Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano)

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins, conductor.

  • PART ONE

    Imprisoned, John Bunyan is finishing his Pilgrim’s Progress. The book is about Bunyan’s dream. The Pilgrim from his dream appears with a heavy burden on his back. Evangelist points the Pilgrim in the direction of the Wicket Gate. Four neighbours –Pliable, Obstinate, Mistrust and Timorous – warn him of the dangers that lie ahead. The Pilgrim,however, ignores them and follows Evangelist’s instructions to find the Celestial City. The Pilgrim asks for his burden to be eased. Three Shining Ones greet him and relieve him of his burden. The Pilgrim knocks at the door of the House Beautiful and is greeted by the Interpreter and the House’s occupants. Following an initiation ritual, the Pilgrim enters the House. Watchful prays for all who rest within the House Beautiful. A Herald wants to know who will take the King’s highway. The Pilgrim steps forward and is made ready for his journey. The Doleful Creatures, who inhabit the Valley of Humiliation, surround the Pilgrim. Apollyon challenges the Pilgrim and they fight. Though victorious, the Pilgrim is exhausted and Two Heavenly Beings (the Branch Bearer and the Cup Bearer) restore his energies. Evangelist appears and presents the Pilgrim with the Staff of Salvation, the Roll of the Word and the Key of Promise. He warns him of the temptations to be found in the town of Vanity. At Vanity Fair, everything the world can offer is available for sale, including the souls of men. Lord Lechery offers women. When the Pilgrim enters, he is surrounded by the crowd, among whom are Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate, and well-known figures who succumbed to the lure of gold or power. Madam Bubble, Madam Wanton and Lord Lechery tempt the Pilgrim with carnal pleasure and power. He dismisses them and defies their Prince Beelzebub. After hearing evidence against the Pilgrim, Lord Hate-Good sentences him to prison and death.

  • PART TWO

    Alone in prison, the Pilgrim feels abandoned. He remembers the Key of Promise given to him earlier by Evangelist, and uses it to escape and resume his journey. The Pilgrim interrupts a Woodcutter’s boy to ask how far it is to the Celestial City.He encounters Mister and Madam By-Ends who refuse to accompany him. The Pilgrim sets out alone for the Delectable Mountains. The Pilgrim meets Three Shepherds. He asks them if he is on the right path to the Celestial City. They invite him to rest for a time with them and the voice of a bird is heard. A Celestial Messenger appears and tells the Pilgrim that he must prepare to cross the river before he can reach the City. Anointed by the Shepherds, the Pilgrim passes through the waters. Voices from the Celestial City are heard and the Pilgrim enters the City. The Pilgrim’s story has ended. John Bunyan is seen in prison again.

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