Today I have spent part of the day listening to a fairly recent recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, based on John Bunyan’s famous allegory of the same title. I think it is among Vaughan Williams’ most neglected works, partly because of the subject matter (not a laugh-riot night out at the opera house) and partly because of the enormous cast—some twenty or more named characters, plus a large chorus and orchestra. I actually own two recordings of the opera: the old classic recording by conducted by Sir Adrian Boult in the ’60s, and the one I’m listening to day conducted by Sir Richard Hickox with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. The role of the Pilgrim in the Hickox recording is the phenomenal Canadian baritone Gerald Finley. (He most recently gained notoriety in the U.S. playing the title role of Robert “Dr. Atomic” Oppenheimer in John Adams’ most recent opera.) As Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim, Finley is tireless. The character is on stage for most of the opera’s duration and is singing much of the time in a quite high tessitura. This role is a marathon and Gerald Finley is more than up to it.
There is so much beautiful music in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Much of the libretto is taken from various biblical sources. Especially the passages of choral music such as the “I will put on the whole armour of light” sequence are radiantly top-drawer Vaughan Williams. The composer imported wholesale an earlier short opera, “The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains” than contains a melting setting of the 23rd Psalm.
I’ll probably never see The Pilgrim’s Progress performed, but at least we have two excellent recordings to savor the music.