Wednesday, 7 November 2012

First opera of the autumn season

I thought you might like a review of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, which I saw at the Coliseum on Monday night.  Basically, if you missed it, you didn’t miss much! 

That’s not really fair of me.  The cast was excellent, especially Roland Wood and Benedict Nelson, and they were all singing their hearts out.  The orchestra were playing their socks off.  The music was lovely, though it didn’t leave me with any particular moments that stay in my head musically, much less coming out humming the big tunes. It was just slow, lusciously melodic Vaughan Williams-y stuff; it rolled beautifully on, but never really got anywhere.

But there were some big buts; it was very long and terribly slow and the production was a bit confused.

The staging looked great; fabulous set design and lighting, with moving grey walls suddenly bathed in blazes of richly textured colour, and amazing puppetry for the giant figure of Apollyon, and the costumes for Vanity Fair were brilliant.  The whole thing looked as though it had been designed by a team of Mark Rothko and Anselm Kiefer for the sets and Georg Grosz for the costumes.  But the story had been re-imagined as a man dreaming about his last days on death row before going to the electric chair, and that just didn’t really work.

I gave it a chance; I gave it 3 hours’ worth of chance, but I still wasn’t convinced by the end.

I didn’t mind it going into modern dress, especially as it was pretty non-specific modern dress.  John Bunyan became a kind of generic political prisoner in a prison camp or gulag that could have been anywhere and anytime in the last century or so.  It could have been Siberia or Robben Island or Reading Gaol.  That seemed reasonable to me; after all, Amnesty International is dealing with the present-day equivalents of Bunyan, wherever they work.  But then it all got a bit confused. 

Initially all the other characters (except Apollyon, who was a marvellous fifteen foot tall rod puppet) were portrayed by the other prisoners quickly putting on white scarves or black gloves or something, to indicate they were now appearing as someone else.  The result was that at first it looked as though we were meant to imagine they were enacting the story for the lead character’s consolation as he faced his approaching execution.  But the Evangelist was a slightly comical-looking Lowry-type figure with a raincoat and umbrella, and as the evening went on other characters appeared who were properly costumed, not just wearing some small indicative touch over their grey uniform, so it wasn't consistent as a theme.  

Vanity Fair was dressed in brilliant colours and masses of spangles and glitter and balloons; it had cross-dressing, money raining from the flies, people dressed as devils, men wearing fake bare boobs with tassels on them...  It looked fabulous, both showy and horrible at once – exactly right, in fact. 

Most of the second half was dominated by the shape of the electric chair at the back of the stage, and all the references to the Delectable Mountains, the Celestial City, etc, were directed towards it.  This was weird and rather nasty to my mind.  The production scrupulously avoided any hint of Christian symbolism or iconography, substituting a rather chaotic mixture of symbols; some that seemed to have come from other religions and some that seemed to be saying all religion was empty and meaningless too. 

For example, the Herald who sends the Pilgrim on his way, part of the way into Act 1, was played as a visiting dictator or general, with all the prisoners in the gulag apparently lining up for inspection and the Pilgrim stepping forward and volunteering to set off, as if he’s been drilled to show what a good boy he’s become - thanks to being re-educated by the kindly government who care so much for all these foolish dissidents.  It really jarred.  At another point when it was obvious from the libretto that there should have been something fairly overtly Christian going on, the scene instead featured a circle of men doing tai chi for ages.

But the implicit criticism of religious faith wasn’t strong enough or carried through far enough to be really biting, and at the same time, all the time it was pulling against the obviously very sincere intentions of the original.  That grated badly; it was neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring.  A clear critique might have been effective, if completely not what Vaughan Williams intended, but it wasn’t a clear critique, it was a muddly one.  I hate to sound like one of the religious Right (about as far from me as you can get!) but I did have a lurking feeling of "How many religions would you get away with this over?"  If one took a celebrated work of historical Jewish religious-polemic-cum-devotional literature, upended it and excised all overt Jewish signifiers to make it appear to be about something else entirely, wouldn't that be viewed as offensive and inappropriate?  Yet anyone going to see "The Pilgrim's Progress" who was hoping for a religiously-sensitive experience will have been disappointed; and anyone like my godparents, who are deeply devout and fairly High Church C of E, would have been horrified.

And it was all s.o. s.l.o.w...

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