At OperaWatch we always look forward to an invitation to the latest student production at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). Over the years, I’ve come to treasure the delights that the RNCM has to offer and I fight vigorously with the Northern Soul trainee opera critics to ensure the tickets are mine. This production of Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress was worth every scratch, gouge and bruise inflicted on your determined correspondent by those vicious little critics driven mad by ambition and resentment (imagine a violent gaggle of teenage Nigel Farages and you get the picture).

The Pilgrim’s Progress - Ralph Vaughan Williams - Royal Northern College of Music - 31 March 2019Conductor - David ParryDirector - Jonathan CockerDesigner - Bob BaileyLighting - Ian SommervilleSo, with a few aches and pains, I set off on my own personal pilgrimage to the beautifully brutalist building that is Manchester’s RNCM on a sunny Sunday afternoon to see what the students made of Vaughan Williams’ take on John Bunyan’s tale of towards salvation. Moved to World War One and on a set borrowed from the Great War artist, Paul Nash, it’s a bleak landscape populated by branchless trees and illuminated by a distant barrage. After a short prologue of a jailed John Bunyan (Liam McNally) in a military prison where he scribbles his tale of redemption, we are offered the full progress of his nameless pilgrim. As the curtain lifts, we meet Pilgrim (Edward Robinson), lost and looking for an escape from the hell. He is directed to a wicket gate by the Evangelist (Peter Lidbetter), an officer with a bloodied, flayed back. A dead angel of holy authority who shows a petrified Pilgrim ‘the way’. Pilgrim’s voice is weary, scared yet determined while the Evangelist’s baritone reverberates with power and calm direction.

Pilgrim’s journey takes him to the Beautiful House in the guise of a field hospital where is ministered to by the Three Shining Ones (Stephanie Poropat, Lucy Vallis and Rhiannon Doogan) in graceful and soothing tones. He can rest in preparation for the tribulations to follow. In the Valley of Humiliation, he is challenged by Apollyon (George Butler). He defeats Apollyon but is left weak and disheartened. The Evangelist arms Pilgrim with the Staff of Salvation, the Roll of the Word and the Key of Promise. With these he can face the town of Vanity and its sinful fair.

The Pilgrim’s Progress - Ralph Vaughan Williams - Royal Northern College of Music - 31 March 2019Conductor - David ParryDirector - Jonathan CockerDesigner - Bob BaileyLighting - Ian SommervilleMaybe it’s the devil in me, but I loved the Vanity Fair with all its earthly delights offered by Lord Lechery (Andrew Masterson), Madams Bubble and Wanton (Naomi Rogers and Clare Hood) and the rest of the seductive ensemble. Despite being condemned to death by a Pythonesque Lord Hate-Good (Steffan Owen), Pilgrim finally reaches the Delectable Mountains and his salvation. He is greeted at the end of his journey by the Celestial Voices (Samuel Knock, Stephanie Maitland and Stephanie Poropat). It has been a moving and pious pilgrimage (I would have fallen at Bubble and Wanton). We finally meet Bunyan on the couch of Freud (Andrew Masterson) as he hands him the draft of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

It is difficult to elect a single soul for praise, but the entire company must take the plaudits for a brilliant performance on the crest of a fantastic orchestra conducted by David Parry. Still bruised, I went home vowing to fight to the last every pesky trainee for the next invitation to an RNCM opera student production.

By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent  

Main image: Pilgrims Progress, Shining One Lucy Vallis. Credit Robert Workman.