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.
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Why the wizarding world is a dystopian, totalitarian nightmare

All the reasons why you don’t want to go to Hogwarts.

Like most nineties kids, I was quietly devastated not to receive an owl on my eleventh birthday. Not getting an acceptance letter from Hogwarts was one of the great tragedies of my young life. Two decades later, no matter how many BuzzFeed quizzes I take revealing I’m a Gryffindor in the streets and a Slytherin in the sheets, I can’t honestly say that I’ve 100% come to terms with being a muggle.

However, I’ve started to console myself that this is largely A Good Thing, because, while I’ll never get to marry Oliver Wood or own a Hippogriff, the wizarding world is actually a complete dystopian nightmare. It’s a totalitarian surveillance state straight out of Orwell, with Pygmy Puffs.

No one cares about the freedom of the press

The wizarding world’s only newspaper, The Daily Prophet, basically functions as the Ministry of Magic’s Pravda. It turns a blind eye to rogue reporters transforming themselves into beetles, literally to bug the conversations of unsuspecting children. And its staff writers openly brag about flouting even basic standards of journalistic ethics.

“On one subject, however, Bathilda is well worth the effort I put into procuring Veritaserum,” writes Rita Skeeter, in her biography of Albus Dumbledore. Can we just contemplate for a moment that it is apparently acceptable to drug an elderly woman suffering from dementia with truth serum, in order to interview her without her consent? It’s like the News of the World cheerfully admitted to phone hacking, and no one minded. Isn’t anyone going to call for a wingardium Levioson inquiry?

The justice system is frankly appalling

Boy wizards may be allowed to bring an owl, OR a cat, OR a toad with them to Hogwarts, but they must leave their right to a fair trial firmly at home. When Harry produces a Patronus in order to defend himself from Dementors, he is threatened with expulsion by the Ministry of Magic. No one reads him his Miranda rights, and he is only granted a stay of execution because Dumbledore waves his wand at the Improper Use of Magic Office and shouts “Habeas Corpus!”

Harry is then summoned to a Ministry hearing worthy of the French Revolutionary Tribunal. What kind of society allows a Kafkaesque show trial where the defendant isn’t informed of his right to legal representation, the prosecution and the judge are the same person, and the jurors are all employed by the judge? They don’t even let Harry know when and where the trial is being held, in the hope of convicting him in absentia – and he is only exonerated because of the surprise appearance of his mysteriously omniscient headmaster. This is not ok, people.

The justice system is frankly appalling, part II

In what world is it acceptable to staff a prison with sadistic guards who torture inmates to the point of insanity, and suck the souls out of anyone who tries to escape? The Wizarding World, apparently. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect more from a society that segregates children into ‘brave’, ‘clever’, ‘evil’, and ‘miscellaneous’ personality types, but is no one interested in rehabilitating criminals? Who in their right mind deliberately brutalises inmates into a state of depressive psychosis before releasing them back into society?

And for the few juvenile defendants who manage to avoid the absolute hellhole that is wizarding prison, their punishment is to be deprived of the right to an education. When poor thirteen-year-old Hagrid is wrongly accused of opening the Chamber of Secrets, he is expelled from Hogwarts and has his wand snapped in half. Statutes of limitations, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, aren’t things that appear to exercise wizarding bureaucracy much: when the Chamber of Secrets is opened again, fifty years later, Hagrid is imprisoned in Azkaban without trial due to a vague sense that he might be responsible.

Hagrid is then conclusively proved to be innocent on both counts, after Harry reveals that Voldemort is to blame – yet he is released without apology, a new wand, or the offer of night school to compensate for the four years of magical education that he was wrongfully denied. What is this, the DPRK?

Everyone is apparently fine with slavery

No one apart from Hermione seems to mind that an entire humanlike species has been enslaved into domestic service. “They. Like. It. They like being enslaved,” shouts an exasperated Ron of the Hogwarts house elves, after Hermione has the naivety to question whether institutionalised slavery is a bit problematic. Yes, Ron, and I’m sure they also enjoy being ordered to physically punish themselves.

Forced labour is clearly more endemic to the wizarding economy than we might have imagined. Professor Slughorn quaffs elf-made wine, hinting at the extent of indentured servitude in wizarding vineyards. We know that food can’t be magicked out of thin air; because it is of course one of the five exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. (Ten points to Gryffindor for me.) But we hear of no witch or wizard farmers. Are we to assume that the entire wizarding agricultural sector is based on serfdom?

Hogwarts is actually terrible

Ron spends an entire year of his magical education without a single teacher realising his wand is broken. Professor Binns couldn’t care less about student engagement. Snape bullies three quarters of his students, and no one intervenes. No one has a problem with the fact that the caretaker openly relishes the prospect of physically abusing children. In short: Hogwarts is terrible.

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