For the last six decades fans of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress, have had to make do with recordings, since the last fully professional staging was the work’s premiere, at the 1951 Festival of Britain. Even then, the final appearance of the opera marked the culmination of more than 40 years of on-off thought and interim composition by Vaughan Williams, who finished at least one scene and recycled some of the music into other works when he temporarily abandoned the project in the 1930s. The opera is based on the original two-part book of the same title, an extended Christian allegory by John Bunyan, published in the late 1600s.
The story concerns the journey of the Pilgrim (Christian) from his home in the ‘City of Destruction’ to the ‘Celestial City’ (Heaven). His adventures, which bring him through temptation and despair and find him sorely tested along the road to salvation – rather like the protagonists in Mozart’s The Magic Flute – bring him into contact with a host of characters from every shade of the spectrum of good and evil: some thirty parts are required in Vaughan Williams’s opera.
Naturally, the music of The Pilgrim’s Progress offers a Cook’s tour of the composer’s mature output: lyrical, pungent, commanding, even experimental; the chance to experience such an operatic rarity, into which Vaughan Williams poured so much of his heart, soul and self-belief, should not be passed over.
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