Gripping Production of The Lighthouse from English Touring Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Peter Maxwell Davies, The Lighthouse: Soloists, Aurora Orchestra, Richard Baker (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 11.10.2012 (MB)


Sandy – Adam Tunnicliffe
Blazes – Nicholas Merryweather
Arthur – Richard Mosley-Evans


Ted Huffman (director)
Neil Irish (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)
Oliver Townsend (costumes)

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s chamber opera, The Lighthouse, received a splendid performance from English Touring Opera, just as Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis did last week. At little more than an hour and a half, including an interval, this proved a far more satisfactory dramatic experience than the Royal Opera’s Götterdammerung on the main Covent Garden stage. (To be fair, that would not be difficult, and ETO’s performance was far better than merely preferable.)

The opera has the gripping quality of a superior detective – and ghost – story. Its Prologue sets up the situation as three naval officers answer questions concerning the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers, questions posed by a solo horn. As time goes on, their interrogation metamorphoses into something approaching reconstruction, the point we reach in the opera proper, in which the singers who have played the officers turn to play the lighthouse keepers – and, at the end, return to the guise of the officers, who may or may not bear guilt. Davies wrote the libretto as well as the score, composed for an expanded Fires of London ensemble, out-of-tune piano, banjo, and flexatone included.

Misunderstandings and the weird ways in which makes sense out of disparate, perhaps even mutually exclusive, ‘truths’ are finely portrayed musically and verbally as well as scenically. Words from the three characters come together to present something that may or may not be more or less truthful than what it is they think they are saying individually: a verbal magic square perhaps? Webern’s shadow is cast longer and more widely than one might expect. The instability of the three men’s relationship – they have been together for a good few months now – is menacingly conveyed, though not without affection either. Arthur is a different matter, or at least he seems to be, but there is certainly at least a hint of homo-eroticism, especially in Ted Huffman’s excellent production, between Sandy and Blazes. Parody is present, of course, most evidently in the reimagination of the ballads – a street variety from Blazes and Sandy’s sickly drawing-room version – and the hymn tunes. (Arthur is clearly the kind of Protestant fundamentalist who has long drawn Davies’s ire.) The rhythm of the closing automation – ‘The lighthouse is now automatic,’ we hear at the end of the Prologue – is as stubbornly memorable as the New York traffic-jam sounds at the beginning of Stravinsky’s Agon, another work owing a great debt and repaying it handsomely, to the jewels of Webern. All of the way home and for some time afterwards I found it impossible to rid my head of its repetitions.

Both Huffman’s staging and Richard Baker’s conducting are excellent, equal in precision; so, unsurprisingly, is the expert witness of the Aurora Orchestra, as fine an ensemble of young soloists as one is likely to encounter. The simple set, faithful to the work, provides a suitably claustrophobic backdrop and indeed participant – who are the ghosts and where are they are? In the characters and/or our minds, or are they something more? – for the keenly directed drama to unfold. Guy Hoare’s lighting did its job very well indeed, especially when it came to showing the automated signals in the deserted, desolate house. Tenor Adam Tunnicliffe offered a sensitively sung performance of Sandy, both contrasting and blending well with baritone Nicholas Merryweather as Blazes. Richard Mosley-Evans presented a powerful portrayal of Arthur, alive to his daemons, and to the illusory and real strengths and weaknesses arising therefrom.

It is not merely that there was no weak length in the cast; these were performances that would have graced any stage. The excellent news is that they will grace a good few more stages, for after the Linbury performances, this production will be seen in Cambridge, Exeter, Harrogate, Bath, and Aldeburgh. For further details from ETO’s website, click here.

Mark Berry