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The Lighthouse, English Touring Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Lighthouse, English Touring Opera

The Lighthouse, English Touring Opera

Peter Maxwell Davies' macabre mystery story creates a very satisfying piece of theatre

Three men in a lighthouse: 'All too close in this prison to keep any secrets'Richard Hubert Smith

Confinement is a thread running through English Touring Opera’s autumn season. In Albert Herring it is in the priggish village; in The Emperor of Atlantis it is in the circumstances of its creation within the Terezín concentration camp; in The Lighthouse, it is one room with curved walls and the interminable wait for the relief ship.

This 1979 chamber opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, who also wrote the libretto, is based on real events: in 1900 a supply ship stopping at the lighthouse on a tiny Outer Hebridean island found it in good shape but deserted, with no sign of its three keepers. The first half of the opera dramatises a board of inquiry, in which the three officers who found the abandoned lighthouse give evidence on what they found – the details are hazy, but an open verdict is returned. For the second half, the officers are transformed into the lighthouse keepers, and we bear witness to their gradual descent into madness as the foghorn sounds, the mist creeps in and their nightmares edge reality out.

In this world of oilskin and shadows everything is geared towards a murky atmosphere

A genuinely Poesque denouement (no spoilers ahead) suggests that the composer could have had a side career as a macabre mystery writer.

Musically, it may be a little hard to love. By the time of the opera’s composition, eight years of Orkney air had blown the arch-modernism out of Davies’ music, but we are still dealing with a fairly cold and abstract sound world. We see the composer working with a fine paintbrush, creating sparse textures with little sustained forward motion. The diverse instrumentation eschews the comfort of a familiar orchestral sound, throwing up snippets of guitar, crotales, flexatone, jangly out of tune piano. A deafening climax, when it comes, is all the more surprising. It may not be emotional music, but it is certainly atmospheric, and it is easy to see why The Lighthouse maintains a position in the repertory (four separate productions international this year alone).

The three men, Adam Tunnicliffe (Sandy), Nicholas Merryweather (Blazes) and Richard Mosley-Evans (Arthur), sing strongly and bring off the acting too. The poisonous chemistry between them – "All too close in this prison to keep any secrets" – is what the drama hinges on, and they do extremely well in rubbing each other up the wrong way.

Overall it is a very satisfying piece of theatre which this production (designed by Neil Irish and directed by Ted Huffman) gets the absolute best out of. No arbitrary updating here: in this world of oilskin and shadows, everything, from lighting to costumes via the characters’ chain smoking, is geared towards a murky atmosphere, entirely faithful to the piece.


I very much enjoyed The Lighthouse, an opera about I had previously known nothing. The pre-performance discussion on 11 Oct, between composer, conductor and director was most helpful. Above all, most aspects of performance and production were absolutely spot on: in particular, the acting of the three singers was excellent, bringing out all the shiftiness of the inspectors, and the pain and madness of the marooned keepers. Side screens provided titles, which were helpful though a bit distracting. I had not previously heard much of Davies' music, but I liked what I heard here and thought it perfect for its purpose. Only one black mark: the Linbury must be one of the most uncomfortable theatres in London, and the appalling seats did diminish one's enjoyment of this otherwise excellent evening!

I approached the evening with a few doubts, never having been a Maxwell Davies fan. However, I found this short opera absolutely riveting, well-scripted and remarkably well played and sung. My only criticism (and it's a severe one) is that I see no point whatsoever in having an interval in a 65-70 minute piece apart from bar sales for Covent Garden. And having insufficient staff behind the counter to deal with the audience in 20-25 minute interval was a further annoyance. You had your concentration on the music broken by a pointless interval and then you got annoyed by a long wait to get served, followed by gulping your over-priced drinks down when the bell went. If anyone thinks that stretching a 70 minute piece of music to 95 minutes with an interval turns a very short evening at the theatre into a full evening then they are not up the mark in terms of human psychology. Surely the answer would have been to pair The Lighthouse with another short theatre piece by Maxwell Davies - there are several contenders. And I agree with the previous commentator: the Linbury is uncomfortable and is indeed one of my very least favourable operatic venues, running the Young Vic a good 2nd.

The evening at Exeter was superb. BUT I do have to ask why a 70 minute chamber opera is interrupted by a totally unnecessary 20 minute interval, breaking the mood of the piece. Well I know why it's necessary, to generate cash. But this doesn't explain why the next opera in the series, which is longer, is billed as having no interval. I also question why if you pay for central (more expensive) seats you should have your neck craned left and right in the instinctive reaction to read video titles. Better without them, they are a distraction. ETO should discuss these issues with theatre management. Nevertheless, a riveting performance, indeed. Bravi.

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