The Royal Northern College has come up with a fine piece of theatre with this year’s spring opera. They last did Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress 27 years ago, and I saw it then, but it’s a great piece for a conservatoire to tackle, with multiple supporting roles as well as the main one of the title, and some excellent opportunities for gifted performers to shine in them.
This production has all that – particularly in the ‘Vanity Fair’ scene that opens the second act – but it has much, much more. The story has been re-interpreted as an allegory of a soldier’s life from the First World War – a soldier who is shell-shocked and has to battle with his memories of the horror as much as the hypocrisy and opprobrium of those back home, but triumphs in the end.
It works remarkably well, and Jonathan Cocker’s concept and direction are inspired. He’s helped by a haunting single-set design concept from Bob Bailey (the vivid period costumes are his as well) in which the foxhole in the trenches of the opening transforms to a field hospital, a town in Blighty or the long hard, road to Zion as required.
It could be Vaughan Williams’ own memories of the Great War brought to life: he served as a medic after volunteering in early middle age, and chose the story himself for what many consider his best full-length opera, working on it for years before its post-Second-World War premiere. In this production the angels are nurses and those who point the way to salvation are doctors and their aides; Pilgrim’s armour is a tweed suit as he seeks rehabilitation, Vanity Fair is a gathering of grotesques beneath the flags of patriotism, and Mr and Madam By-Ends are the callous wealthy.
The battle with Apollyon presents the dragon as a human phalanx but looking horribly like a huge artillery piece, and the dead emerge from the set to haunt the hero even while his soldier mates wander fearfully in the war-torn landscape.
It’s also excellently sung. The RNCM seems to have a glut of extremely good male singers at the moment, and there are many different chances for individuals to shine. I saw baritone Edward Robinson in the title role and have nothing but praise for his performance, and likewise with Liam Mcnally’s appearance as the writer in the prologue and epilogue.
William Kyle was powerful as the Herald (here a Mr Mayor back home); Kamil Bien impressed with a mature tenor timbre in his roles as Interpreter (in this case a medic) and Messenger in the wartime hospital scenes; Steffan Owen stood out for his singing and his characterization as Lord Hate-Good (now, with the text as cue, a be-wigged and merciless judge).
There were excellent performances, too, from Stephanie Poropat, Lucy Vallis and Rhiannon Doogan is the Shining Ones, Stephanie Maitland as Madam By-Ends (with Ryan Davies as Mr), and a whole variety of roles in Vanity Fair.
David Parry pilots it all with a sure hand in the pit, and the chorus singing – they’re trained by Kevin Thraves – is magnificent.
Edward Robinson as the Pilgrim - picture: Robert Workman