With its small raised platform and steeply seated audience, the Linbury Studio Theatre was an auspicious venue for the English Touring Opera's production of Peter Maxwell Davies' chamber opera The Lighthouse (1979). The trelliswork of metal bars encircling the stalls and the bleak lighting effects gave this performance a befittingly industrial air. Truncated by a curved wall, the stage effectively drew spectators into the claustrophobic world of this maritime signal tower as well as its wider aura of isolation.
Maxwell Davies' narrative centres around a real-life incident that occurred on Boxing Day in 1900. A supply ship travelling from Orkney arrived at the Flannan Islands' lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides only to discover it empty. While the living quarters betrayed no sign of commotion, the three men staffing the tower had disappeared without trace. Maxwell Davies uses this unsolved mystery as the basis for his own plot, in which supernatural intervention, psychological breakdown and malicious intrigues are all delicately indicated but never confirmed.
The narrative is spun over just two acts each lasting between 30 and 40 minutes: the "Prologue: The Court of Enquiry" and the "Main Act: The Cry of the Beast". The prologue charts a courtroom enquiry in which the three officers from the supply ship respond to musical questions posed by the horn. The composer indicates on the score that at the director's discretion the horn player may be positioned amongst the audience. I certainly felt that this would have intensified the production. Due to the significant gulf between the Linbury's heightened stage and sunken orchestra pit, our authoritative judge (represented by the horn) appeared to be recumbent on the courtroom floor. Singing from within the lighthouse interior, each of the officers embarked on their account of the discovery, recreating the scene with furniture and props. Director Ted Huffman describes the prologue as a "layering of truths, half-truths and falsehoods, one on top of the other". It quickly became clear that the three accounts were inconsistent, leaving the audience with an array of possible explanations.
For the "Main Act" we were taken back to the turbulent hours that foreshadowed the strange disappearances. The three lighthouse keepers were now represented by the same singers who had taken the roles of the officers. Blazes (Nicholas Merryweather, baritone), Sandy (Adam Tunnicliffe, tenor) and Arthur (Richard Mosley-Evans, bass) wait tensely in the lighthouse long after the point at which they expected to be relieved. While Sandy and Blazes play a game of cards, the religious zealot Arthur exits to patrol the exterior. He is then heard from offstage as the ominous "Voice of the Cards". In his strange chanting, Arthur alludes to the Tarot imagery used by mystics and occultists of the 15th century to map the fortunes of their audience. The decision to stop surtitles at this point may have seemed like a logical step to render the "Voice of Cards" as a disembodied divinator: in reality it was extremely difficult to hear what was being sung and the textual details of this scene were ultimately lost. From the programme the audience could understand the significance of the Tarot card called "The Tower" – namely that it stands as an emblem of all falsities coming undone.
After a series of petty disputes, the keepers sing songs in a bid to lighten the atmosphere. However, their offerings, all brilliantly brought to life by Maxwell Davies' self-penned libretto, only serve to awaken harrowing memories. Accompanied by a strumming banjo, Blazes begins with a raucous ballad that documents his youthful experiences of domestic violence and crime. Sandy follows with a love song that quickly develops into an erotic fantasy. I was not altogether sure whether his wavering Italianate tenor ascents were simply unfocused in their delivery or were executed in this manner for comic effect. Finally, Arthur interrupts with a hymn prophesying the reincarnation of the golden calf described in the Book of Exodus.
Psychological trauma begins to set in as the men are pierced by recollections of their pasts. Their anxiety is driven by a sense of supernatural forces closing in on the tower. It is Maxwell Davies' score, rather than any theatrical effects, that fuels this notion of danger and seems to drive the protagonists towards their fate. With shrieking pitches and majestic waves the music wreaks havoc with merciless fury until the characters are destroyed. Conductor Richard Baker's dramatisation of the music as a fateful force was certainly inspired, although not always successfully articulated. Some of the most thrilling moments in this act occurred when sounds were clearly travelling across the stage and intruding upon the lighthouse set, yet the sunken orchestra pit often made it difficult for the players to project assertively.
The last scene was exquisitely managed, and provoked an ecstatic reaction from the audience. As the officers tidied up the deserted lighthouse, leaving a single candle burning on the table, the score continued to tick through a series of mercurial patterns. Finally, the footlights sent shadows of furniture flickering across the stage in a metronomic dance with Maxwell Davies' music, until all lights went out.
A very intense, suspenseful night of music theatre describes the cramped and foggy conditions at the lighthouse, and the claustrophobia of the court hearing at which the relief keepers give their account of the incident. Each of the keepers is depicted with penetrating insight, so that beneath their calm, blameless exteriors the audience senses a troubled past.
Davies’ theatrical score ratchets up the tension with consummate skill; moments of lyric beauty, banjo-accompanied ballads, and hymn-inspired movements lead to a powerful, percussive conclusion. This is modern English music at its most theatrically effective.
New production, sung in English
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio TheatreBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
ETO: The Lighthouse © Richard Hubert Smith