Peter Maxwell Davies's 'The Lighthouse'
English Touring Opera gives a chilling performance of a creepy tale
Who doesn’t love a good unsolved mystery? Here’s a pretty spooky one: a supply ship turns up at a manned lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides only to find it deserted. The three keepers who were meant to be working there have vanished. A half-eaten meal is on the table, but the only indication of anything awry is an overturned chair.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s 1979 chamber opera, The Lighthouse, draws on this chilling story of true events that took place in 1900 and imagines how the disappearance might have come about. Cast as a Prologue and main act – 'The Cry of the Beast' – it pits the seemingly objective against the subjective. The three naval officers who stumble on the Marie-Celeste-like scene reel off factual reports in the prologue. But doubts seep in as their accounts differ. That chair… was its leg broken? Did rats really race out of the lighthouse when they opened the door?
It’s a tantalizing tale, and English Touring Opera does the piece proud. Three singers are first the nameless officers then the characterful keepers: here the uniformly strong trio consists of tenor Adam Tunnicliffe as Sandy, baritone Nicholas Merryweather as Blazes and bass Richard Mosley-Evans as Arthur.
Maxwell Davies’s atmospheric and virtuosic score, replete with the sounds of wheeling gulls and squally seas, conjures up a sense of bleak isolation. The Aurora Orchestra, under Richard Baker, puts on a fine show. While the music leaves us to imagine the remorseless wilds outside, Neil Irish’s circular set is of the lighthouse’s interior – a sparsely furnished room – and its simplicity somehow adds to the stifling intensity.
In the main act – divided from the prologue here by an unnecessary interval – the scene moved to the imagined version of events. The opera starts to slip between memory and fact, imagination and reality, sanity and insanity. The three keepers were on the brink: hungry, ill and plain fed up with being stuck in the lighthouse. There’s religious mania, a suggestion of homoeroticism – in this production at least – and brawling. Each keeper sings a song to help cheer things up: a street ballad from Blaze, the false jauntiness of the violin and banjo only increasing the horror of the words; a love song from Sandy, accompanied by cello and out-of-tune piano; and a hymn with brass band and clarinet from Arthur. But these musical distractions only make them tumble even further into madness. As you can imagine, it doesn’t make for a happy ending.
And here, in Ted Huffman’s production, the ending is done in such a way that it raises yet more questions than are already found in the score. Maxwell Davies seems to suggest, with the return of the automatic light which sweeps inexorably across the stage, that we might have been watching a ghost story all along. Huffman leaves us wondering if the officers killed the keepers, if they are in fact the ghosts, and whether the next set of keepers will fall prey to the same fate. But somehow, this added bafflement, meant that, rather than being left with that delicious shiver of a haunting mystery, I was just left with a lot of questions.