The tale of Pilgrim is one of every person’s journey through life on earth, the trials and victories that form a soul, and the choices that enable mortals to reach Eternal Life.
Prologue: Bunyan in Prison
The opera opens with John Bunyan writing the last words of The Pilgrim’s Progress, “So I awoke and behold it was a dream.” Then he begins to tell the story from the very beginning. The stage turns to focus on Pilgrim, laden with a heavy burden on his back. In lament, he cries out, “What shall I do?”
Scene i: The Pilgrim Meets Evangelist
Evangelist appears and directs the lost Pilgrim to the Wicket Gate. Encouraged with a sense of direction, he continues towards his newfound destination. Soon after, four neighbors approach, warning him to “go back and be wise,” for the way forward is very dangerous. Almost deterred, Pilgrim decides to trust the Evangelist and continues on in search of “Life, Eternal Life.”
Scene ii: The House Beautiful
The Pilgrim, weak from his long journey, stumbles in and kneels at the Cross. As he kneels, the voices of the Three Shining ones overwhelm him. They greet Pilgrim and relieve him of his heavy burden, laying it in the Sepulcher. Pilgrim knocks on the door of the House Beautiful in search for relief and is welcomed by Interpreter, as well as a chorus of men and women from the house. Pilgrim kneels in adoration, while Interpreter seals him on his forehead. He is then stripped of his old clothes and given a white robe. The great doors open to the house and Pilgrim is led to his chamber named Peace, where he rests safely overnight.
In the dead of night, Watchful, the porter of the house, makes his rounds praying for the blessings of sleep and peace for all who rest within.
Scene i: The Arming of Pilgrim
The trumpet sounds, announcing the Herald. “This is the King’s highway … who will go on that way?” The Pilgrim stands, having written his name in the book. The Herald then commands Pilgrim to come forward. He is again given numerous warnings of the impending danger ahead, as well as encouragement and reminders of the grace and protection given to pilgrims. Deciding to continue on, Pilgrim is armed to fight and sent on his way with the parting message, “Go forward, Pilgrim, he that overcometh shall inherit all things.”
Scene ii: The Pilgrim meets Apollyon
In the Valley of Humiliation, Doleful Creatures lurk about moaning and howling. They surround Pilgrim as he enters. Pilgrim then encounters Apollyon, the first force of evil he must reckon with, who bars his way forward. After a tough fight, the Pilgrim gains the victory and the way is reopened for him. Too weak to continue, he falls down in exhaustion. Two heavenly beings come to his aid, restoring him with the leaves and the water of Life. Evangelist appears once more and equips Pilgrim with the Staff of Salvation, the Scroll of the Word, and the Key of Promise. He also warns him of the town of Vanity that lies ahead, but reminds him to “Be thou faithful unto death and the King shall give thee the Crown of Life.”
Scene i: Vanity Fair
All the world’s goods are for sale. Every age and nation is represented, and among them Lord Lechery offers his special brand of merchandise. The Pilgrim enters and the crowd surrounds him, singing, “What will ye buy?” The Pilgrim prays to keep his eyes from vanity. A procession enters of various figures who succumbed to the pleasures of gold or power: Demas, Judas Iscariot, Simon Magus, Worldly Glory, and Pontius Pilate. Then the mood shifts as Madam Bubble, Madam Wanton, and Lord Lechery offer the lust of the flesh and the pride of life. Pilgrim waves them away, remarking, “I buy the truth!” He defies their Prince Beelzebub, the father of lies. For his defiance he is brought to trial before Lord Hate-good, who, after hearing statements from the witnesses, condemns him to prison and death.
Scene ii: The Pilgrim in Prison
Alone in prison, Pilgrim cries out to God in anguish saying, “My God, look upon me. Why hast thou forsaken me? … Hath God forgotten to be gracious, that he in anger shut up His tender mercies?” Suddenly, he realizes what a fool he is, for around his neck lies the Key of Promise. At that instant, the prison gates fly open, and in the moonlight he is able to see his way back to the King’s Highway. He escapes prison and continues on his journey.
Scene i: The Pilgrim meets Mister By-Ends
Renewed with hope, Pilgrim runs into a boy singing cheerfully as he works at the edge of the wood. The Pilgrim greets the young boy and asks how far it is to the Celestial City. “Not far,” says the boy. “When the day is clear, you can see the Delectable Mountains, and then your journey is nearly at an end.” Mister and Madam By-Ends enter; they would like to join Pilgrim to keep him company, but they don’t care for Pilgrim’s strict views. They prefer religion to be comfortable, and to wear gold slippers rather than humble rags and contempt. Pilgrim refuses their company, and the By-Ends, equally refusing to
desert their old principles, leave Pilgrim to continue alone to Mount Zion.
Scene ii: The Delectable Mountains
It is evening, and three shepherds are praying. The Pilgrim passes them and asks if he is on the way to the Celestial City. The Shepherds welcome Pilgrim and ask him to stay and rest for a while in the Delectable Mountains, where flowers are abundant and birds sing praises to God. A messenger enters bearing an arrow with which he ceremonially pierces Pilgrim’s heart, and warns him he must prepare to cross the river. The Shepherds anoint Pilgrim, and he passes through the deep waters of Life as they kneel and pray for him.
Scene iii: The Pilgrim reaches the end of his journey
A distant trumpet sounds in the darkness, and voices of heavenly beings from the Celestial City are heard singing. Men and women on earth also join in. Darkness gives way to light, and Pilgrim is seen climbing the stairs to the Celestial City, welcomed by the open arms of Angels and heavenly hosts. His journey is complete.
The vision fades. Bunyan’s dream has passed and he addresses the audience, showing them the book in his hand. “O come hither, and lay my book, thy head and heart together.”