Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' might have been an atheist, but his opera ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ is a religious work of great depth and beauty. Broadcast live from the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House last Thursday evening, Opera Australia presented this wonderful work under the direction of conductor Richard Hickox.A marvellous array of the company’s best singers joined forces with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, and the London Bach Choir augmented the Opera Australia Chorus to create an unforgettable evening of splendid music.
Vaughan Williams based his opera on John Bunyan’s book ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and in 1906 composed music for twelve episodes which formed the template for what would later become the opera. He only returned to the story in 1921 and expanded one scene into a one act pastoral episode which eventually became Act IV, Scene II of the final opera. Work continued until the mid 1930’s, was then put aside until 1942 and eventually completed in 1949. He presented the piece to the Arts Council in late 1948 and the response was coldly polite; ‘It’s not the sort of thing’ we ‘expect from an opera anyway’, the panel remarked. The piece finally premiered at Covent Garden in 1951 and this opera without a heroine or any love duets received a cool reception – Thursday evening’s performance did not.
The opera tells the story of Pilgrim, an ‘everyman’ figure who fears damnation. Hoping to be saved, he travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City and on the way meets and defeats personifications of evil and godlessness.
Opera Australia performed the piece as a concert work rather than as an opera and I think this was a wise choice. The soloists - and there were many of them (thirty-four roles in total) - entered from behind and above the stage as well as from stage left and right. They were all dressed in formal attire, the men in suits and the women in beautiful evening gowns reflecting their respective characters, and the coming and going worked quite effectively. Had the piece been performed as an opera, the danger of it appearing visually boring would have been great. Performed the way it was, the audience was not distracted by any fancy staging and was able to simply bathe in the beautiful music making.
It was a real delight to see and hear the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra on stage for a change, rather than hearing it from the pit as is the case in the Opera Theatre. Rather than a muffled tone, the orchestra created a beautiful full bodied sound which easily filled the hall and it was also wonderful to see the physical aspect of the music making. The balance between the orchestra and the singers was splendid and it was always possible to hear the voices above the orchestra.
The singing from the soloists was excellent and they all deserve a mention, unfortunately the sheer number of them makes this impractical. And so I’ll just mention a few. Alan Opie sang the ‘Pilgrim’ and his steady baritone voice combined with thoughtful characterization was a pleasure to witness. Tenor Barry Ryan gave a sure performance and the aria ‘Into thy hands oh Lord, I commend my spirit’ was sung with impressively good diction and a beautiful warm tone. The other male soloists displayed an impressive collection of beautiful and technically assured voices and the female soloists sang equally well. Not only did the women have beautiful voices, they also looked stunning - gone are the days of the fat diva so it seems.
No review of this performance would be complete without mentioning the fantastic chorus which was often a highlight and greatly appreciated by the audience. The combined Opera Australia Chorus and London Bach Choir produced an exciting and full-bodied sound which was an absolute joy to hear and conductors Michael Black and David Hill are to be commended.
Whether or not ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ is the sort of thing audiences ‘expect’ from an opera these days, it was nevertheless satisfying to hear so many wonderful and dedicated musicians performing such a great work and the audience was rightly impressed - it’s just a shame that there was only the one performance.
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra & The Bach Choir London in Concert
The Pilgrim’s Progress
Venue: Concert Hall | Sydney Opera House
Date: 27 March 2008
Tickets: $72 - $118
Bookings: Opera Australia Ticket Services on (02) 9318 8200 or www.opera-australia.org.au, Sydney Opera House Box Office on (02) 9250 7777 and Ticketmaster 1300 136 166