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Sir Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
The Lighthouse (1979) [72.29]
Neil Mackie (tenor) - Sandy, Officer I; Christopher Keyte (baritone) - Blazes, Officer II; Ian Comboy (bass) - Arthur, Officer III, Voice of the Cards
members of BBC Philharmonic/Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
rec. Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 22 February 1994
text available online
NAXOS 8.660354 [72.29]

The Victorians had a great fascination with 'mysteries of the sea'. This seemed to serve them with the same sort of fuel for speculation which UFOs have exercised over more recent generations. Of these the most celebrated was probably the disappearance of the whole crew of the Mary Celeste in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This was elaborately embroidered by contemporary publicists with manifold circumstantial details which, in the words of Gilbert, seem to have been "intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." Subsequent researches have rather disappointingly reduced the mystery to the fact that the crew abandoned ship in a lifeboat (which was missing). The only field for speculation now is the reason why they did so.

The facts regarding the mysterious disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers from the Flannan Isles in December 1900 were much more reliably recorded in the subsequent Court of Inquiry. This fully documented case has surprisingly managed to elude the attentions of the conspiracy theorists. One would have imagined that much speculative capital could have been made out of the fact that information regarding this clear example of alien abduction would have been suppressed by Lord Salisbury's government, distracted by their involvement in the Boer War and anxious to avoid other entanglements. Would they have commissioned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create the fictional character of Professor Moriarty to provide a smokescreen for any Government involvement. Would they also have made use of H G Wells to write a story about alien invasion of Earth in order to obviate any public empathy with the intentions of the clearly benevolent if obscure purposes of the ETs involved. I realise that there are serious problems of chronology here, but then historical accuracy has rarely been allowed to stand in the way of theories of this type. I am sorry that I don't have space - or indeed the inclination - to develop this clearly tenable hypothesis in more detail.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in his operatic treatment of the subject steered well clear of the wilder possibilities, mooring his setting firmly in the frame of the courtroom testimony of the three officers of the lighthouse ship Hesperus who discovered the disappearance of the three keepers on a routine tour of duty. The action then shifts to the lighthouse itself, where the three keepers are each presented as fictional archetypes of various characters - with the names of the historical keepers changed. There's a bible-thumping religious zealot, a rough diamond from the slums and a seemingly innocent pacifist. Their internal conflicts do much to provoke an access of madness which leads to their destruction. It seems as good a theory for what presumably was either a group suicide, or a double murder followed by the suicide of the murderer - although there were no signs of violence - as any. Experiments over the years have shown that isolating small groups of men for prolonged periods can have odd results, and certainly provide plentiful opportunities for characterisation and emotional sympathy. By contrast many of the protagonists in Maxwell Davies' other operas appear to lack the attributes of basic humanity. They function as representations of ideas and ideals rather than as real people or stand as psychological studies in extreme human conditions. That said, the sense of engagement the listener feels with Blazes, Sandy and even the religious monomaniac Arthur, is palpable. This may well explain the fact that The Lighthouse has been the most performed of any of Maxwell Davies operas. It is the first opera to appear in the praiseworthy Naxos series of reissues of recordings made by the now defunct Collins Classics label.

The recording was made at a live performance, but the audience are impeccably well-behaved and the excellent sound has clearly been well judged. In the opening scene the questions posed to the boat crew are represented by a solo horn. This could have been dramatically problematic but comes over well. The diction of all the singers is highly commendable and most of the words are clearly delivered even when Maxwell Davies' chamber orchestra is at its most strident. Neil Mackie was at the time something of a specialist in the composer's works, and throws himself into his role with the utmost conviction. Christopher Keyte made his career in more conventional repertoire, but sounds thoroughly at home. Ian Comboy mouths his religious platitudes with relish, and manages his excursions into falsetto with aplomb although he shows a considerable sense of strain in the upper register as he evokes the image of the Beast. While in his earlier works of music theatre Maxwell Davies made plentiful use of extended vocal techniques in the avant-garde manner, here his writing is more considerately written for conventional voices, and this helps not only with diction but with the establishment of character. He also indulges his sense of parody, as in the 'music hall' song for Blazes, the 'parlour ballad' for Sandy, and the revivalist hymn - with Salvation Army style brass band accompaniment - for Arthur. The variety of sound that Maxwell Davies conjures from a mere fourteen players is amazing.

There was I believe at one time a version of The Lighthouse available on video in the production by Music Theatre Wales, but this does not appear in current catalogues. The work, like most modern operas, gains from the presence of the dramatic and visual element and Mike McCarthy's basic production has worn well. Mike Rafferty, something of a Maxwell Davies specialist in his own right, yields few points to the composer in his treatment of the score. The casting honours are also pretty even - Philip Creasey in Wales is less mellifluous than Mackie, and Henry Herford is rougher in tone than Keyte, but Kelvin Thomas makes much more of the manic elements of Arthur than the comparatively civilised-sounding Comboy. Further comparisons are invidious and irrelevant in view of the dubious availability of this video; at the time of writing I could not even find any second-hand copies through Amazon.

One assumes that in due course Naxos will reissue the remaining Maxwell Davies operas originally recorded by Collins - The martyrdom of St Magnus, The doctor of Myddfai - although with the truly weird - even by Maxwell Davies' sometimes very peculiar standards - Resurrection they need not feel a desperate sense of urgency. However in the year of the composer's eightieth birthday the re-appearance of this dramatic opera in a blistering performance is cause for rejoicing in its own right.

Of the original documentation, only the text is not given in the packaging, and this is available online from the Naxos website. One does however wish that the cover illustration could actually have shown the Flannan Isles lighthouse and not some other more generic and seemingly more modern construction.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Maxwell Davies on Naxos reviews