Amid the current burst of activity on Melbourne’s opera scene BK Opera’s production of The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies could well have been submerged. Fortunately, opera lovers are as keen to make up for a lack of melodramatic fixes, withdrawn due to the pandemic, as opera companies are to provide them. Those familiar with BK Opera’s thoughtful treatment of significant operatic works will be keen to see their latest offering. By a strange coincidence, opening night was not only the first Melbourne performance of The Lighthouse, it also just happened to coincide with what would have been Davies’ 88th birthday.
Composed in 1979, with a libretto written by the composer himself, The Lighthouse was inspired by a true event. In December 1900, three lighthouse keepers vanished without a trace from the Flannan Isles lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides. What actually happened to them remains open to speculation. This mystery provided an opportunity for Davies to explore possibilities in what has been billed as a “spine-chilling psychological horror opera”.
It is an opera in two parts. It begins with a Prologue in which three officers from a lighthouse supply ship give contradictory reports to a Court of Enquiry in Edinburgh of how they arrived to find the place deserted. The main section, subtitled The Cry of the Beast, covers events leading up to this discovery as the three keepers unravel in the claustrophobic lighthouse while awaiting the arrival of the long-delayed supply ship. As is the case for most productions, the same three singers sang both the reporting officer and lighthouse keeper roles.
As a venue, the small theatre in the Brunswick Mechanics Institute has the drawback of being draped with curtains, but does have the virtue of intimacy – a major plus for this opera. Any fears that sound would be further muffled by a performance space enclosed within a kind of Perspex fishbowl were immediately put to rest the moment the singers began. Casey Harper-Wood’s stage design was instrumental in generating the oppressive atmosphere. In conjunction with Gabriel Bethune’s lighting design it was also somewhat confronting. Members of the audience could see themselves mirrored in the Perspex panels until the central space was lit to reveal the singers. This visual effect also reflected director Kate Millet’s stated link between the confinement of the keepers and Melbourne’s extended periods of lockdown. Whether there was any significance in seeing the conductor Evan Lawson’s brightly mirrored image in the right hand side panel throughout the opera is unclear; it certainly was distracting even though the helpful surtitles to the left of the stage drew the eye away from his white-topped figure.
Davies’ score certainly has its challenges. In the Prologue the music is spikey, chromatic and declamatory in style. It is mainly in the ensembles and the three “set pieces” that a distinct tonality is evident. In this production, the chamber orchestra consisted of repetiteur Sung Won Choi on electronic keyboard, Phoebe Smithies on horn (an essential inclusion) and a soundscape designed by Jack Burmeister. As the audience entered the venue, this soundscape made its subtle presence felt, setting the stage of stormy watery isolation. Having listened to the opera several times over the last couple of days, I was amazed at how well this reduction worked – a credit to the musical knowhow and sensitivity of those who devised it.
The cast of singers was also impressive. Cued with great clarity by Evan Lawson, who mouthed almost every word, they all sang with robust pleasing tone, both alone and as a disciplined ensemble. As Sandy / Officer 1, tenor Daniel Sinfield sang confidently, generally negotiating the falsetto requirements smoothly in his sentimental ballad about the pleasures of love. Baritone Jonathan Rumsam not only sang the roles of Blazes and Officer 2, he also accompanied himself on the requisite banjo for his nasty graphic song about a violent upbringing and a vicious murder. Rumsam contributed effectively to the heightening tension with his characterisation. Henry Shaw’s rich, powerful bass gave suitable weight and presence to the roles of Arthur, Officer 3 and Voice of Cards. As the sanctimonious Arthur, he gave a vigorous account of the rousing, tub-thumping number about God’s revenge on the Children of Israel for worshipping the Golden Calf. Instead of these songs diffusing tension as Sandy’s peace-making suggestion had intended, the scene was set for a climactic finale. Swirling fog, bright lights (the eyes of the feared Beast) shining into the audience and a crescendo of stormy music erupted as their past came back to haunt them.
The opera concluded with three men discovering an empty lighthouse. What had happened? Davies offers no definitive answer, but we had been taken on a gripping exploration of the possibilities thanks to the composer, performers and the creative team at BK Opera.
Heather Leviston reviewed BK Opera’s production of “The Lighthouse” by Peter Maxwell Davies, performed at Brunswick Mechanics Institute on Se