Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera, The Lighthouse, first performed in 1980, is based on a true story: in 1900 a supply ship arriving at the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides found the lighthouse abandoned, the keepers missing and no clues as to what had happened to them. Maxwell Davies imagines what might have occurred. English Touring Opera’s production directed by Ted Huffman conveys every aspect of this ghostly mystery and its uncanny power.
The opera opens with three of the ship’s officers answering questions before a court of enquiry. Their testimonies contradict each other; details about the chair, the cup, the selkies do not tally. Clearly something is amiss. As they arrive on the island the sense of foreboding is palpable. A verdict of death by misadventure is reached. In the main act, entitled The Cry of the Beast, the uniformly excellent cast of three (Adam Tunnicliffe, tenor, Nicholas Merryweather, baritone, and Richard Mosley-Evans, bass) have become the lighthousemen, who squabble and bicker, the malign presence of the religious fundamentalist suspicious of his colleagues being particularly disruptive. As he sings, “I don’t know what your song means, but I disapprove”. The tensions build, demonic visions and violence ensue.
The superb singing is matched by conductor, Richard Baker’s expert handling of the demanding score and of the impressive Aurora Orchestra (complete with flexatone, referee’s whistle and slightly out-of-tune piano). The Bath Theatre Royal’s excellent acoustic gives the music particular clarity and force. This is an opera where texture matters more than tune, but many who feel modern opera is not for them will find themselves pleasantly surprised by the music’s accessibility. Neil Irish’s design, the one stark set serving as courtroom and lighthouse, and Guy Hoare’s lighting contribute greatly to the atmosphere. This is a gripping evening in the theatre from a company whose ambitious plans for the next two or three years (rare Donizetti, Monteverdi, Tippett, more Britten amongst other things) show well-deserved confidence in its talent and popularity.