Following a superlative Death in Venice at Aldeburgh in 2007 (later seen at Bregenz and soon to be revived by Opera North), Yoshi Oida’s London opera debut is long overdue.  Unfortunately his stark, incisive style founders somewhat against the austere demands of Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which, lying closer to oratorio than opera, is so fundamentally undramatic that, as with stagings of works like Bach’s Passions, it’s almost impossible to avoid imposing a faux theatricality on it. 

Although it worked well enough for Janacek in his final opera, Oida’s basic conceit of presenting the story as a play put on by prisoners feels clichéd and straining for context.  He takes his cue, of course, from the fact that Bunyan wrote his morality tale while imprisoned, and that’s how Vaughan Williams frames his adaptation, but Oida overplays the ritual in an unduly reverential approach to the cod religiosity of the piece.  In doing so, he detracts from the storytelling, although he does allow us to wallow in the colour and naughtiness of Vanity Fair, which bursts with life after the solemnity of a long grey opening.

The burnished metal sets revolve and re-arrange themselves in a fairly inventive way and there are certainly some striking images, including a giant muppet as the monster Apollyon, who brings Wagner’s Fafner inevitably to mind.  Projections of men in the trenches seem something of a non-sequitur, notwithstanding some justification in the programme notes (Vaughan Williams’s own experiences in the Great War and the soldiers’ love of Bunyan’s tale).  There’s some satisfaction to be had in the conflict between incarceration and a picaresque adventure that takes in valleys, mountains, castles and cities, and like the hero it’s all very effectively executed with undeniable dramatic flair, but ultimately doesn’t amount to much more than a staged concert. 

A huge cast sing well, with sterling work from the chorus, who you never feel are less than well-drilled, motivated and fully present.  Roland Wood is untiring and focused as the Pilgrim and there are notable contributions from Timothy Robinson and George Van Bergen, playing a multitude of moral ciphers with names like Mr By-Ends and Lord Hate-Good (not to mention a Court Usher with his arse hanging out).  Other cast members get moments to shine and I was taken with Kitty Whately’s Woodcutter’s Boy, re-realised as a touching and sweet-natured tea lady.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is worth seeing because it’s such a rarity (this is the first fully-staged London production for over 60 years) but mostly for Vaughan Williams’s glorious score, so redolent of his symphonic output, and Martin Brabbyns’s conducting of it, which is sensationally good.

ENO have championed Vaughan Williams in recent years with productions of Sir John in Love and Riders to the Sea and, if this falls short of a thrilling theatrical experience, it’s exactly the sort of work they should be doing.

- Simon Thomas