In the final scene of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “morality”, premiered during the 1951 Festival of Britain, John Bunyan reflects on the dream of suffering and salvation from which he has awoken, and asks the audience to “see if thou canst interpret it to me”. In his new production for English National Opera, Yoshi Oïda takes Bunyan at his word. He ignores the idea of the Pilgrim’s journey as a quest for spiritual enlightenment and turns it into an allegory of political imprisonment, with grey uniforms, iron-grille set and electric chair.
On one level, Oïda has a point. Bunyan, a 17th-century preacher, was in prison when he wrote the allegory on which the opera is based. He had been convicted of breaching laws circumscribing religious freedom, an injustice Oïda equates with the clampdown on freedom of speech in parts of the modern world. But Bunyan’s imprisonment was no more than a frame for his tale, whereas Oïda’s preachy prison metaphor lumbers a fragile opera with a burden that, unlike the Pilgrim’s, it cannot shed. We spend the entire performance wallowing in the Slough of Despond, instead of progressing to a celestial climax.
The drabness of Tom Schenk’s set makes Vaughan Williams’ moderato pacing feel interminable, laying bare the opera’s feeble dramaturgy and shallowness of characterisation. And, thanks to Sue Wilmington’s artificially garish costumes, even Vanity Fair fails to arouse the show from its slumber.
This injustice is a slap in the face to Vaughan Williams’ operatic reputation, which ENO did so much to bolster with Sir John in Love six years ago. It also takes the shine off the ENO ensemble, who are saddled with phoney New Age routines, stand-and-stare choruses and leaden soliloquies. Roland Wood sings a steady but uncharismatic Pilgrim, assisted by Benedict Nelson’s Evangelist and a multiple-character tour de force by Timothy Robinson. Under Martyn Brabbins, the orchestra does its best for Vaughan Williams’s soporific pastoralism, but Oïda’s monochrome political veneer would flatten a much better score. This is the opera’s first fully professional UK staging since its muted Covent Garden premiere 61 years ago. It may well be another 61 before the next.