Gloriae Dei Cantores offers an enterprising revival of Vaughan Williams’ “Pilgrim’s Progress”

October 28, 2017 at 2:29 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Ralph Vaughan Williams was both a skeptic and spiritualist. His second wife and widow, the writer and poet Ursula Wood, recalled Vaughan Williams in her memoirs as an outspoken young atheist who softened in later years. The composer’s own views on his religious faith raised more questions than answers: He referred to himself as a Christian agnostic.

It’s little wonder then that John Bunyan’s morality play Pilgrim’s Progress occupied a large part of Vaughan Williams’ life. He held the story — quite literally — close to his heart, having carried a copy with him in his breast pocket when he served in the British Army during the First World War. His settings of the story even found their way into a number of his works, including his Fifth Symphony. After a gestation of nearly 45 years, Pilgrim’s Progress resulted in his powerful, though often neglected, opera of the same name.

The last time Pilgrim’s Progress was heard in New England was in 2005, when the enterprising choral group Gloriae Dei Cantores, based in Orleans on Cape Cod, offered the East Coast premiere. The organization, along with the Elements Theatre Company, resurrected this musical treasure Friday night at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans to celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. Bunyan’s story, it was made clear, still resonates with listeners.

The reason why Pilgrim’s Progress receives such limited attention has to do with its sizable cast of nearly forty soloists and its overtly religious and rather flat, linear storyline. But when set to an engaging production, as Friday’s performance was, the opera can offer a palpable emotional journey.

Pilgrim longs for a better life and deserts his home and family in the City of Destruction to walk a straight and narrow path. His burden is lifted when he converts to Christianity, which Vaughan Williams downplays in favor of a more universal spirituality. Armed as a warrior of God, he confronts and defeats the demonic Apollyon. Pilgrim meets additional challenges in the city of Vanity, where he curses the vapid lifestyles of the crowd, who, in turn, condemn him to death. But Pilgrim escapes bondage and makes his way to the Delectable Mountains, where Shepherds point the way to the Celestial City. When he arrives in Zion he is welcomed with open arms.

Though it is Vaughan Williams’ most religious work, Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t rife with the drama one often finds in traditional opera. But Sister Danielle Dwyer’s production and the chorus’s choreography delivered engaging action sequences. Pilgrim’s battle with Apollyon had a visceral excitement. In the arming of Pilgrim, the chorus wielded quarterstaffs and swords to finely choreographed effect. Vanity Fair was a scene of modern decadence, complete with Starbuck’s coffees, hippie dress and pot brownies.

Evocative video cast on three large screens provided scenery and backdrop for a wide stage in the church’s grand sanctuary. Moving pictures of mountains and waterfalls conjured the utopian House Beautiful, while images of forests and meadows depicted the lush pasture on the way to the Delectable Mountains. In the Valley of Humiliation, dark images set an aptly hellish tone.

But it is the music that ultimately makes the story so enjoyable, and the singing in this production was, for the most part, consistent.

Richard K. Pugsley brought a world-weary, rough-edged tone to the role of Pilgrim. His best singing came in his jail scene, where he captured the character’s humility and resilient faith. John E. Orduña’s baritone was smooth-toned and bold as the Evangelist, while Doug Jones gave a bright and powerful performance as Lord Lechery in “Come and Buy”.

Andrew Nolen’s rich bass well suited the roles of Apollyon and Lord Hate-Good. Eleni Calenos brought a radiant sound and vocal elegance to her brief roles as the Branch Bearer and Voice of a Bird.

As Herald, Peter McKendree lacked the clarion voice needed to pull of “This is the King’s Highway” effectively. Precision and grace marked the performance of Rachel Pfeiffer, Sister Rosemary Ingwersen, and Lindsey Kanaga as the Three Shining Ones. Other standouts included Aaron Sheehan, who found the sincere humor of Mister By-Ends, and Paul Scholten, Brother Richard Cragg and Orduña, who found the warm spiritualism of the Three Shepherds. Scholten, as the imprisoned John Bunyan, sang with prayerful reverence.

But the heroes of this performance were the members of Gloriae Dei Cantores. Whether cast as doleful creatures writhing on the floor or as a heavenly choir, they sang with radiant tone and pristine blend. “He Who Would Valiant Be” rang in the space with the conviction of a country preacher’s Sunday sermon.

Set up backstage, the orchestra, conducted by James Jordan, delivered Vaughan Williams’ lush score with sensitivity. Warm brass chords tilted the music towards light while solo viola, cello, clarinet, and oboe added shades of pastoral warmth. Pilgrim’s Progress, after all,  remains a journey in sound.

Pilgrim’s Progress will be repeated 7:30 Saturday and November 6 and 7 at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans.

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