Saturday, 28 October 2017

Pilgrimage to the Celestial City

Top Ten lists are a risky business in any field of the arts.  I could write you a top ten list of my favourite operas today, and then might write a rather different one next year.  But there are a few works that will usually hold a place on that list for me.

One of them I first heard in a recording in 1973 or 1974.  Since then, I have listened to my copy of that first recording many times, yet it has never worn out its welcome.  I refer to The Pilgrim's Progress by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  You can read more about this marvellous work, its laborious gestation, checkered performance history, and my own feelings about the music in this blog post:  A Pageant of Rare Beauty and Power

Professional performances of this opera remain rare, and I had all but given up hope of ever seeing it staged.  But last spring I got wind of a production coming up in a most unusual venue, and this week I travelled down to Cape Cod in Massachusetts and, at long last, got to see The Pilgrim's Progress in a fully staged performance -- which I believe is only the third or fourth time the work has been staged in North America.

The performance took place in the Church of the Transfiguration, the headquarters church of an ecumenical Christian religious community and its choir, Gloriae Dei Cantores.  The church was built less than 20 years ago in the style of a Roman basilica, a long arcaded nave without transepts.  The audience seating was arranged down one side of the nave on risers, while the three stage platforms occupied the other side -- with the orchestra seated in the arcaded side aisle behind the stage.  The stage backdrop consisted of three huge screens on which still and animated scenic projections created a vivid sense of time and place.  The inherent peril of this layout was mitigated by placing three video screens on the wall behind the audience so that the singers could see the conductor -- on camera!

It was absolutely worth the apparently makeshift nature of this layout, because the acoustics of the church are glorious -- not least, the sound of the orchestra soaring clearly through the arcades above the stage to expand into the main nave.

I'm starting with the orchestra, because its role is so critical.  This is one of the most symphonic operas since Wagner, with preludes and interludes in many places in the score.  There are numerous examples of fully symphonic writing in counterpoint with the singers (it's not just "accompaniment"), and the score is also dotted with those lovely instrumental solo lines so beloved of the composer.  All of it came through with absolute clarity, played under the skilled direction of James E. Jordan.

Next, I have to jump to the critical contribution of stage director Danielle Dwyer and the Elements Theater Company.  This opera is like a pageant, and like any big pageant it has big crowd scenes.  Dwyer crafted ingenious solutions to creating "crowd" effects on the stage platforms, which were, in actual fact, not very deep.  She also ensured that each member of a crowd scene had a distinct personality, look, and style that were his/hers alone.  None of this got in the way of clear, balanced, and strong singing from the chorus in those same scenes and many others.  The most spectacular of these crowd scenes was the lengthy, vigorous, and colourful scene in Vanity Fair, but the Doleful Creatures surrounding Apollyon ran it a close second.

There was much excellent singing and acting from all members of the huge cast, but hard as it is, I do have to confine my remarks to a few standout performances.  Paul Scholten began and ended the performance as John Bunyan, singing firmly and steadily, and created a nicely contrasting gentler impression as Watchful, the Porter of the House Beautiful.  John E. Orduña made an equally firm and characterful Evangelist (the only character besides the Pilgrim and Bunyan who appears more than once).  Br. Richard Cragg was clear and strong as the Interpreter of the House Beautiful.  These three then joined in a beautifully blended trio as the three Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains -- a magical scene.

Eleni Calenos sang beautifully as the Branch Bearer, and her voiced soared ethereally as the psalm-singing Bird of the Delectable Mountains.  Sadly, in the latter role she was positioned somewhere a bit too far behind the scenes and hard to hear over the voices of the three Shepherds -- but when we could hear her, the sound was magnificent.

Doug Jones sang the high tenor aria of Lord Lechery with great gusto and precision, no mean feat as the music soars and swoops all over the map, with plenty of rhythmic tricks to boot.  His trio with the two prostitutes, Madam Wanton (Martha Guth) and Madam Bubble (Kathryn Leemhuis) was a riot of insinuations and suggestive looks and gestures.

Andrew Nolen sang powerfully as Lord Hate-Good, the judge who presides over the kangaroo-court trial of the Pilgrim.  His earlier contribution as the evil Apollyon was also good, but harder to hear because of the powerful cries of the Chorus of Doleful Creatures -- a rare instance where the staging got a bit out of hand.  Given Apollyon's threatening appearance, having his voice amplified would not have been out of place.

Aaron Sheehan and Sr. Estelle Cole created just the right sort of genteel comedy as Mister and Madam By-Ends, with their self-aware strutting and preening about the stage.

And most of all, Richard K. Pugsley as the Pilgrim.  This is a daunting role, to say the least -- on stage in every scene, and frequently singing in counterpoint to orchestral playing that goes its own way.  As well, the Pilgrim has to take an inner, emotional journey as wide in scope and as full of twists and turns as his outward physical journey.  Pugsley clearly portrayed all of those varying emotional states, his face and body always in tune with the voice, and with everything that was happening around him.

His finest moment came right where it needs to come, in the long aria of Act 3, Scene 2, where he finds himself locked in prison, remembers that he carries the Key of Promise, and escapes outside to the starry night.  His soaring phrases as he contemplated the star filled sky were intense and moving indeed.

So was the scene of the Pilgrim's arrival at the gates of heaven, with the onstage and offstage choruses singing antiphonally in near-perfect balance.

Aside from a couple of textual alterations and some instances of odd diction, plus one or two other points already mentioned, this was a deeply-felt and carefully planned and prepared staging of this challenging opera.  Beautifully sung and expertly performed -- I was more than amply rewarded for the time, effort and cost of travelling to Orleans, MA, to see it.