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The Lighthouse – Opera by Peter Maxwell Davies

A Mystery for the Ages

Opera Parallèle presents a new production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ "The Lighthouse." From left to right: Robert Orth, David Cushing and Thomas Glenn. At Z Space on Thursday night, April 28, 2016.

Opera Parallèle presents a new production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ "The Lighthouse." With Thomas Glenn, Robert Orth, and David Cushing. At Z Space on Thurdsay night, April 28, 2016.

We know at the outset that the three lighthouse keepers in Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera “The Lighthouse” are dead. No spoiler alert needed. We learn in the prologue that nothing is known of the circumstances leading to their deaths and that their bodies were never found. Thus, under the writ of habeas corpus, no criminal proceedings may be invoked, and the keepers’ deaths are assumed to be accidental. So what is left to propel a narrative? How about a libretto with compact, but deft character revelation and an appropriately dissonant score with an admixture of complementary musical idioms? And how about Opera Parallèle’s production concept and execution that enliven and embellish a work that could easily be presented in a very static mode?

Davies’ chamber opera is based on the actual disappearance over a century ago of three keepers from a lighthouse in the Scottish isles. It opens with a prologue about the Court of Inquiry to determine the cause of the loss of the men. In this segment, the three male singers, who constitute the entire cast, play the supply ship’s officers who found the abandoned lighthouse. Here, the performances are largely stand-and-deliver, as might be expected in giving evidence from a witness box. The prologue serves to reveal the “open verdict” of the inquest, meaning that suspicion remains about the presumed deaths.

The central section of the 80 minute opera is entitled “The Cry of the Beast,” a flashback to the great storm before the keepers’ demise. It reveals a supposition about the situation and characters as they interact in the keepers’ quarters before the tragedy. Although not expressed, one theory is that Davies’ “beast” could be the violent thrashing of the ships’ lights in the storm. In that version, the ships’ officers murdered the keepers. This argument could be supported by the inconsistent testimony of the officers at the inquest, but the officers had no known motivation to kill the keepers. The acrimony and sharp differences among the keepers are quickly disclosed, and foul play among the keepers or bad judgment during the storm could easily explain their loss at sea.


In turn, each keeper sings an aria that delves more deeply into his troubled soul. Arthur’s whole persona is bound by religious fervor which is often targeted at Blazes, who finds him a hypocrite. David Cushing as Arthur uses his rich bass authoritatively in a hymn-like song about a vengeful God. Robert Orth is Blazes, who sings of his misspent youth and much worse in a folkier style. The formidable baritone meets the test of his role with highly expressive acting as well. Both Cushing and Orth render a full vocal range in full voice but are also asked to sing exacting head voice tracts. Thomas Glenn is effective in the tenor part of the younger Sandy, though the character and part are not as well developed as the other two. He acts as the conciliator between the other two, and his aria is like a Celtic ballad that discloses improprieties in his love life.

Nicole Paiement’s orchestra is limited to 13 players, but she extracts a rich array of representational sounds from various instruments – questions, moans, screeches, crashes, waves, and foghorns – in support of Davies’ score. The percussion are especially well used with xylophone runs, a variety of tonal drums, and a rustling tambourine. But each instrument has its moments, a tribute to Davies’ compositional style. The execution of the score is driven by commendable urgency and instability.

The artistic design is by Brian Staufenbiel who creates a unique take on the staging. The central hardware on the stage is the metal skeleton of a lighthouse, with a spiral staircase leading to a lantern room. In front of this structure sits a table and chair representing the keepers’ quarters. But what distinguishes the staging is the use of vast drapes of gauzy fabric that are manipulated by four dancers. The fabric variously acts as scrims suspended from horizontal poles; stormy seas waved by poles; and sheets covering dancers as ghostly apparitions. Given the limitations of the venues, the action, and the number of characters, the fabric provides a welcomed dynamism that animates the stage.

Davies’ decision to limit the length and scope of “The Lighthouse” was appropriate. The score and libretto both offer a great deal, but one element that could have enriched the narrative and the musical complexity would be an ensemble of the three voices that could divulge their inner feelings toward one another. In any case, the piece is well suited for companies with limited resources. Whether or not that is the case with Opera Parallèle, they found an excellent solution to presenting this interesting opera.

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