The Trinity Lyric Opera company will perform the West Coast premiere of The Pilgrim’s Progress this weekend at the Dean Lesher Regional Arts Center in Walnut Creek.
The opera was one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ last compositions and he considered it his masterpiece, the culmination of over 40 years of work.
Throughout his life he had composed parts of the piece, presenting some of them as finished work. At one point, thinking that he would never complete the opera, he folded several of its themes into his 5th Symphony. However, nearing his 80th year, Vaughan Williams finished the piece. In 1951, its presentation at Covent Garden in an inadequate and awkward production was “the bitterest disappointment of his musical life.”
Described as a “morality,” The Pilgrim’s Progress more closely resembles an oratorio with its large chorus, which acts as a central musical figure within the piece, and its lack of aria-driven action. It was conceived by the composer as a series of tableaux, like that of a medieval morality play.
But like all of Vaughan Williams’ music, it seems to be woven more of spirit and transcendence than of the didactic or moralistic. It took Vaughan Williams many years to develop his musical voice, and that development was sympathetically affected by his understanding of early English folk music. His is a spiritual music, but it is neither remote nor cold.
Vaughan Williams uses the John Bunyan allegory as the foundation for his opera not because he shared Bunyan’s religious beliefs but because the universalism of the allegory appealed to him.
“I want the idea,” he wrote to a friend, “to . . . appeal to anybody who aims at the spiritual life whether he is Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Shintoist, or 5th Day Adventist.”
According to his widow Ursula, Vaughan Williams was “an atheist . . . who drifted into a cheerful agnosticism: he was never a professing Christian.”
He was, however, a man with a deep social conscience. His work with refugees during the World War II led to the banning of his work by the Nazis.
Vaughan Williams stripped away much of Bunyan’s Radical Protestant ideology in The Pilgrim’s Progress, especially that concerned with the Christian struggle with sin. What remains is a simpler, more universal journey of the soul.
At the beginning of the opera, the character of Bunyan tells the audience of his dream, which is to become his book, and the Pilgrim enters the stage. He is driven by fear and the great burden he bears, and he cries out to be saved; The Evangelist sets him on a journey toward a light he can just see in the distance. Leaving his home, the City of Destruction, and heading toward the King’s Highway, Pilgrim finds himself at the House Beautiful, where he is relieved of his burden and given tokens to help him on his way. It is easy to read Vaughan Williams’ personal journey into to the voice of the Pilgrim when he sings: “Music in the house; music in the heart; music in heaven, for joy that I am here.”
The first trial that Pilgrim undergoes on his journey to the Celestial City is his battle with interior demons, represented by Apollyon and his minions, the Doleful Creatures. Apollyon, the Destroyer, is a form of the devil, the angel of the bottomless pit in Revelations, but here he takes on the form of feudal lord or property owner, who declares that the land and everything in it is his. After the battle in which he overcomes Apollyon, the Pilgrim is wounded and then healed by two bearers of Life, soprano and contralto, who comfort him in a sweetly ethereal duet.
His second trial takes place in Vanity Fair, where Pilgrim is confronted by the chaos of the marketplace, presided over by Lord Lechery singing a music-hall song. Gold, power, lust, pride of life are sold here, and when Pilgrim refuses to buy and rejects their patron god Beezlebub, he is thrown in jail and sentenced to die.
What follows is the opera’s most moving scene. In jail, Pilgrim is in despair, he feels abandoned by his god, but in the middle of these dark moments he remembers the key that he had been given in the House Beautiful. He realizes that he has been carrying his freedom with him, that he has the power to open the prison doors with which the material world has enclosed him. The doors swing open, and the Pilgrim returns to his journey.
It was clear in rehearsal last week that there are many fine singers in this production of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Jason Detwiler’s portrayal of the Pilgrim is especially wonderful, and in this prison scene it finds its most powerful realization. A fine bass-baritone, Detwiler has a voice with the weight and depth to give this scene the spiritual profundity it needs as his Pilgrim moves from black despair to radiant fulfillment.
The libretto of the prison scene is also one of the more beautiful sections of the opera; taken from the Bible, the language is that of mystical writing across many traditions: “Surely the darkness shall cover me even the night shall be light about me. The darkness is no darkness with thee: but the night shineth as the day.” It is the kind of language that Vaughan Williams could translate perfectly into music, melding it into his own contemplative sound, filled with ecstatic and mysterious harmonies.
Alan Thayer, the director of the Trinity Lyric Opera, founded and organized the company specifically to bring Ralph Vaughan Williams’ opera to the West Coast. This is a rare opportunity to hear an important work by one of the great composers of the 20th century.
THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS
Trinity Lyric Opera’s production shows at 8 p.m. Friday, June 16, and Saturday, June 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 18, at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For more information, see www.trinitylyricopera.org.