One of the first things that may strike you on listening to Peter Maxwell Davies’ chamber opera, The Lighthouse
, is just how much purposeful variety the composer revels in. It’s a brief, one act work but passages range from Maxwell Davies’ signature pastiche to a declamatory narrative style redolent of both Stravinsky and Britten. The way the story is told is not just sparse. The voices and instruments are distilled to focus our attention on what may have happened prior to the disappearance of the three keepers on the Flannan Isles (Outer Hebrides) lighthouse when the supply ship, Hesperus, arrived in December 1900.
Inspired by Craig Mair’s book on the Stevenson family, which had several generations of lighthouse workers as well as Robert Louis, Maxwell Davies’ treatment of the utterly mysterious episode (which has still not been explained) is direct, compelling and potentially as disturbing as any such event. Indeed, at one point in the production, as the orchestral score reaches a climax, the beam of the lighthouse is turned to maximum and directed into the audience to heighten the sense of disaster and danger.
This live recording on Naxos is of a single performance in February 1994 at the Royal Northern College of Music, which was originally issued on Collins Classics. It includes Neil Mackie as Sandy, the first officer who sang in the première in Edinburgh in 1980. Each of these three male leads is excellent: it would have been all too easy for them either to have added an element of the histrionic in an attempt to explain their fate; or for the roles be underplayed in order to highlight the extraordinary by contrast.
Neither approach is taken. Their delivery is not ‘deadpan’. However it’s as close to the way in which protagonists like these must have gone through an ordeal like this — which presumably actually ended in their deaths — and then might have brought themselves to describe it, if they had been able.
The Prologue — at almost half an hour the longest of the segments into which the opera is divided — is a Court of Inquiry. It indicates the flavour of the events, though: the three principals play the parts of the crew of the Hesperus which made the odd discovery. Use is made of flashback, recitative-like narrative and speculation. Even the question and answer pattern of a court of inquiry is subverted: we hear only the answers. The corresponding questions have to be deduced.
The single act that follows is subtitled ‘The Cry of the Beast’. The principals are now the three keepers but there is tension between them, which increases throughout the act. Sandy (Mackie) has to try to keep the peace between the voluble Arthur (Comboy) and Blazes (Keyte), who reacts against the former’s hypocrisy. The characters of the three are developed remarkably quickly by Maxwell Davies - through songs, for instance. Each singer makes this possible, as does the delicate instrumentation of the dozen plus members of the BBC Philharmonic. Quite a remarkable characterisation and enrichment of the mystery.
Particularly effective in this recording is the extent to which singers and players manage the ambiguities, the blurred boundaries between probable fact and probable imagination. The ghosts of the keepers appear; but are they who they seem to be? How stark is the division between guilt and innocence in the earlier lives of the protagonists? Is this a story of religious consequences - hence the subtitle? Is the Beast the source of the light? Is the light a symbol of death, or salvation, or something other? If so, Why? Can we even be sure that the Court of Inquiry and the Hesperus’ officers are seeing, understanding and telling the truth as it appears to them? Above all, what are the implications of these ambivalences for the presumed fate of the three men?
There is further symbolism - in the song that Arthur sings, and the Tower of the Tarot and cards. This could all have been handled heavily and self-consciously but here was not. This is not surprising since the composer conducts. This is the only recording of The Lighthouse
currently in the catalogue and it is vintage Max, which will satisfy in every respect. His is an enthralling and enterprising career, of which this opera is typical. It has depths beneath the apparent mystery around which it centres. The performers have done it proud and bring out those layers in an idiomatic and highly successful way.
The recorded acoustic is drier than experienced by audiences at the original production but that’s no detriment. It adds a touch of claustrophobia. The booklet contains all the information needed to get the most from the CD; and the libretto (not included) is available online.
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