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.