COMPOSERS: Maxwell Davies
ALBUM TITLE: Maxwell Davies: The Lighthouse
WORKS: The Lighthouse
PERFORMER: Neil Mackie, Christopher Keyte, Ian Comboy; Members of the BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies
CATALOGUE NO: 8.660354
Britten set such a devastatingly high creative standard in his chamber operas that his example has proved a tough act to follow. A genre with an affordable orchestral lineup of solo instruments (it’s irreverently known in the trade as ‘opera lite’) has meant plenty of opportunities for composers since. Trouble is, it’s a necessarily thinly scored medium – and how do you generate theatrical space and atmosphere with that? In The Lighthouse, composed in 1979, Maxwell Davies confronts these issues in virtuosic style, and with dramatic success.
The top-flight libretto (by Maxwell Davies himself) imagines what might have happened at the Flannan Isles lighthouse in the Scottish Hebrides, found deserted by its supply ship in 1900. The cast of three switches between the ship’s officers at the subsequent enquiry, and the three missing lighthouse keepers who, the story suggests, became unhinged by memories of their previous lives. Horrifying consequences are inadvertently set in motion by the song with which each keeper notionally entertains the others, dragging up ghosts from the past – a device allowing Maxwell Davies to deploy (for once with convincing dramatic justification) his pet device of popular song-and-dance styles along with a dissonant, corruption-suggesting overlay.
Even without the visuals, the work’s taut pacing and sharp-focus invention grip the imagination from start to finish. All three cast members excel, taking Maxwell Davies’s liking for passages of falsetto yowling in their stride; and the instrumental playing is incisively superb.