The Lighthouse

Review: The English Touring Opera's production of Davies's chamber opera.

On 15 December 1900, the Flannan Isles’ lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides went dark. When a routine relief boat stopped at the island a week later its crew found the lighthouse empty of the three keepers. Inside all was tidy and in order, with only a single overturned chair a sign of anything untoward. The men were never found. History never solved the mystery of the disappearance, but composer Peter Maxwell Davies (himself a long-time resident of the Orkney Islands) offers a chilling psychological solution in his 1980 chamber opera The Lighthouse.

The most frequently performed of Maxwell Davies’s operas, The Lighthouse owes its appeal to a score of atmospheric concision. Benjamin Britten may be the greatest English composer of the sea, but in Maxwell Davies’ abrupt orchestral squalls and unexpected textures we get a violence quite unlike the swelling grandeur of Britten’s Suffolk coastline. Sounds as well as music emerge from a pit in which percussion instruments outnumber all others. Trombone splatters are tempered by plaintive little flute gasps, with muted trumpets supplying the “crack of the blackbeaks’ wings”.

In Ted Huffman’s new production for English Touring Opera the broad vistas of Maxwell Davies’ score find themselves in friction with the claustrophobia of Neil Irish’s sets. Embraced in the curve of the lighthouse, the three keepers are turned constantly back to one another, thrown into uneasy and confronting intimacy. Huffman wisely keeps things simple, allowing the spare elegance of the score to do its work, while establishing some neat vision tensions in his differing three-way reminiscences. The framing outer sections in which the three singers become the patrol team sent in to investigate the tragedy, flow neatly into the central drama, although an interval in this miniature work breaks the tensions unnecessarily.

Despite its age, Maxwell Davies’ music still feels fresh. Perhaps it’s the specificity of the music-world he conjures, his familiarity with the island landscape he creates, but there’s nothing strikingly dated here. Even a guitar in the chamber band finds its place in the colouristic blend. Rejecting the consolation of melody for much of the work, the composer offers us a brief reprise in a set-piece that sees each of the three keepers sing a song to their companions.

Blazes (baritone Nicholas Merryweather) seduces us with the off-kilter lilting of his strummed ballad, that turns from family reminiscence into domestic violence in a few short verses. Much of the joy of these songs is Maxwell Davies’ parodic skills, inhabiting and subverting his material with gleeful skill, and investing strophic repetition with telling variation. Merryweather balances a gorgeous legato with a daring range of vocal colours (all of which are demanded by the virtuosic writing), and is matched for skill by his colleagues.

Adam Tunnicliffe’s Sandy affects lofty tenorial passions, but when his parlour-ballad is reworked as a catch it reveals a rather baser agenda. His fluting affectations are balanced by the doom-preaching Arthur (Richard Mosley-Evans – pure Old Testament in authority and resonance) and his hymn. The musical characterisation of this religious fanatic is as precise as anything in this score, and Mosley-Evans makes much of the ecstatic rising arpeggio that guides him ever closer to his vengeful God.

Richard Baker directs the Aurora Orchestra (accompanying all three of ETO’s touring productions this year) in a performance of contained ferocity. There’s a balance between feral abandon and precision in all of Maxwell Davies’s scores, and here these warring oppositions find themselves amplified in the contained studio space of the Linbury.

In Maxwell Davies’s hands a potential ghost story becomes a terrifying psychological drama about the fragility of civilisation and the “beast” that lurks just beneath the surface in all of us. The ghosts here are no alien spirits but the guilty secrets of the past – flesh and blood spectres whose weapons are also very much of this world. In this latest production by English Touring Opera it’s a show that will haunt you well beyond its brief 80-minute span.

Davies's chamber opera begins with an empty lighthouse. Photo: Getty Images.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State