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A Slow-burn Approach

'The Lighthouse' by Peter Maxwell Davies,
reviewed by MIKE WHEELER


Peter Maxwell Davies' chamber opera The Lighthouse is based on a real incident in 1900 when three keepers of an Outer Hebrides lighthouse disappeared in unexplained, Marie Celeste-like circumstances. The opera's exploration of the inter-personal tensions and paranoia of the three men is one possible version of what may have happened. A prologue moves between a court of enquiry into the incident and flashbacks to the arrival of the relief boat. The boat's three officers answer questions posed by a solo horn, with small discrepancies emerging in their three stories.

The second part of the opera reconstructs events inside the lighthouse leading to the disappearance of the three keepers, played by the same singers. Stormy weather has made their relief boat long overdue, and as tensions mount, each of the men reveals a dark side that eventually sucks them towards a violent climax, whose precise details Davies (who wrote his own libretto) deliberately leaves undefined.

This production by Psappha, one of the UK's leading contemporary music ensembles, has been mounted to mark the composer's seventy fifth birthday (seen at Buxton Opera House, Buxton, UK, 17 July 2009). It features superb singing from James Oxley, Damian Thantrey and Jonathan Best, and incisive playing from Psappha's instrumentalists, conducted by Etienne Siebens, who are placed to the side of the stage. This emphasises the ensemble's role as the drama's fourth protagonist, with Davies' atmospheric instrumental writing heard to maximum advantage. The set is a simple two-tier metal construction which revolves to serve as the courtroom, the deck of the relief boat and the interior of the lighthouse itself.

Elaine Tyler-Hall's production is at its best in the Prologue, which builds a genuinely creepy atmosphere. The second part works less well, which may simply be down to the fact that it really needs a smaller venue in order to capture the requisite feeling of claustrophobia and menace. What this did do, though, was to throw more weight onto the penultimate scene, in which the relief crew arrives, they begin tidying up and, Max's libretto suggests, start to concoct their story.

Something of a slow-burn approach to this classic of modern music theatre, then, which never quite catches fire.

Copyright © 22 July 2009 Mike Wheeler,
Derby UK


There's one further performance of Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse at the Buxton Festival: on Saturday 25 July 2009, 2pm at Buxton Opera House.









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