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A work of biblical proportion, 'Pilgrim's Progress' has real spirit

ORLEANS -- The statistics alone are staggering. The New England premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams's opera ''The Pilgrim's Progress," presented by performing-arts organizations affiliated with the Community of Jesus in Orleans, offered a chorus of 95 and an orchestra of 62 -- about a 1-to-1 ratio with the seats in the audience. All the participants had been rehearsing since last fall.

The spectacular setting was the Church of the Transfiguration, with its floor mosaic depicting man's earthly pilgrimage stretching the full length of the central aisle. It's a fitting atmosphere for Vaughan Williams's theatrical adaptation of John Bunyan's famous allegory about Christian's journey through the traps and snares of the world to the Celestial City.

There must have been at least 300 costumes, all of them created or assembled by members of the community. For the Vanity Fair sequence, depicting the folly of human obsessions, they chose their own getups: everything from Park Avenue elegance through naughty boas and bustiers to tattoos, spiked hair, chains, and leather. Revolving painted panels, platforms, chairs, and benches were also created especially for the production.

The preparation by director and conductor Elizabeth Patterson and her assistants, Sister Danielle Dwyer and Richard K. Pugsley, was meticulous; one seldom sees an operatic production as powerful in conception and polished in execution as this ''Pilgrim's Progress." This was not a Sunday-school pageant. All the participants had been encouraged to prepare their contributions through a process of self-examination. The principals pledged to undertake a ''singer's diet," avoiding fatty foods, milk, coffee, tea, and alcohol while drinking at least eight glasses of water daily. Orchestra players wrote every word of the text into their parts -- a rarity.

Vaughan Williams was preoccupied with the operatic possibilities of Bunyan's work for more than four decades before he finally brought it to the stage in 1951. He called it a ''morality" rather than an opera; although it addresses such operatic subjects as lust and redemption, it necessarily does so in an unconventional way. The music reflects the harmonies and melodic structures of hymnody and folk song; it mingles simplicity and majesty.

Most of the performers were amateurs in the best sense; there were no great voices, although a couple of the baritones were very good: Brother Paul Norman as the Evangelist and Brother Richard Cragg as the smoothly hypocritical Mister By-Ends. As the Pilgrim, Pugsley offered a strong voice, though one stressed by rehearsal and performance. But everyone performed with spirit, and it was fun to see the young man playing the evil Lord Hate-Good, a villain right out of ''Star Wars," also showing up, robed in white, as part of the heavenly host. The overall effect, anchored by the superb chorus Gloriae Dei Cantores and Patterson's assured and probing musicianship, was spectacular.

Vaughan Williams frames his work with scenes of Bunyan in prison, where he wrote ''The Pilgrim's Progress." At the end, the writer holds out his book ''as if offering it to the audience." The Community of Jesus members prepared this work as a spiritual exercise for themselves, but the performances were also an offering.

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