There’s so much going on in Peter Maxwell Davies’ chamber opera Lighthouse (1979) that it is perhaps offhand to point out that a story about three people stranded together has a particular resonance during the Covid era. It’s not Following on isolation than on psychological repression, or the power of time, or evil, or madness. But the quarantine resonance is there too, and so the new Irish National Opera production (November 20-December 11, nationwide) is timely, although it may be an opera that is still in the works. news.
Lighthouse is based on a true story: In 1900, a lighthouse supply ship arrived at the Flannan Islands Lighthouse and found its three lighthouse keepers missing without a trace. The official investigation into the disappearances concluded that the guards were probably swept away by a wave as they repaired a crane, but Davies digs into the mystery and what could have happened between the guards stranded by the storms for a long time after that they were to be relieved.
The opera is a characteristic work of Davies: rich and ironic, while also being broad in its emotional and musical range. (And fortunately, this is also entirely without the banality of some of his works, such as A wedding in Orkney, with the sunrise (1985).) This magnitude is often squeezed into moments of exquisite tension, such as when one of the lighthouse keepers, Blazes (Ben McAteer), embarks on an autobiographical ballad of bawdy murder accompanied by violin and banjo – only for murder guilt catching up with him as musical dissonance increases.
The musical range also places additional demands on what is already an extremely virtuoso work for both cast and orchestra, but, as we would expect INO, the performance was superb. The orchestra, under the direction of Elaine Kelly (her first live with INO), was well drilled, colorful and full of character. The three singers – McAteer is joined by tenor Gavan Ring and bass John Molloy – sang with rich, clear vocals. Ring exquisitely captured the false sweetness of his character’s (Sandy) love song, and Molloy gave great evangelistic strength to his Bible-denigrating Arthur.
As a director, Edwina Casey had a certain briefing. This production is the same as the film production that was shot across the country over the summer, so it had to find a staging that would work just as well in the movies as it did in the theater. She certainly managed to make it work on stage: its lonely minimalism lent itself well to the introspective nature of the material, and also allowed the stage to adapt to the variety of musical styles it endured.
In particular, the centerpiece which was the light of the lighthouse was an inspired decision: a simple circle of light, sometimes industrial yellow and sometimes blinding white, it could be anything from ambient lighting to a god. – incredibly bright sun. This was placed against dark, subdued lighting which perfectly captured the phantasmagoria of the plot and the opacity of the characters’ hearts. When the main light was off, the semi-darkness was delicately enhanced by occasional dots of color – like the soft golden light of oil lamps – which served more to reveal how dark things were than to light anything up. Shadow was also themed effectively, with the cast often strikingly framed against bright lights, creating bold shadows and silhouettes. It was yet another inspired choice in an opera about losing oneself in the ghosts of its past, and the set and costume design of Annemarie Woods and the lighting design of SinÃ©ad Wallace also deserve a special mention for it.
I only had a few reservations. First, the score sometimes required instruments that INO performed on an electric keyboard – but the keyboard emulation was so poor that I had to struggle to figure out which instruments were intended. It was only through contextual clues that I made sure that the keyboard accompanying Sandy’s love song was meant to be an out of tune piano. Second, more could have been done to convey Davies’ cheeky and irreverent humor and how that manifests itself in stylistic clashes and juxtapositions. The musical performance was played almost directly: the pitches and rhythms of the singers were careful and precise, but there was little way to play with the score. For example, Blazes’ murderous ballad, besides being written in a folk style, is full of brief moments of dark and bitter pseudo-humor; the score seems to me to be an invitation for the performers to match Davies’ irreverence, or to build on the singing tradition of folk ballads, but no opportunity was seized.
However, these reservations are minor. The production was otherwise bright, capturing both the darkness and the lightness of Davies’ opera, as well as how these opposites blend into each other, and how each is, so to speak, always in the shadow (or the reflection) of the other.