Sunday 8 June 2014

Anyone with an interest in 20th century opera should snap up Naxos’ re-release of Peter Maxwell Davies' masterly opera The Lighthouse

Naxos  is continuing their invaluable re-release of recordings of music by Peter Maxwell Davies previously released on the now defunct Collins Classics label.

Their latest release is of his 1979 chamber opera The Lighthouse based on the true story of the disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers in 1900 and features a strong cast with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer and Neil Mackie (tenor) Christopher Keyte (baritone) and Ian Comboy (bass) 

A steamship passed the Flannan Islands in poor weather and noted that the light of the lighthouse was not operational. This was reported when the ship arrived in Oban. The island lighthouse was manned by three keepers, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald Macarthur with a rotating fourth man spending time on shore. The relief vessel was unable to set out on a routine visit from Lewis due on 20th December due to adverse weather. When it finally arrived at noon on 26 December, the crew and relief keeper found that there was no flag flown, none of the usual provision boxes had been left on the landing stage for re-stocking and none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore.

When Joseph Moore, the relief keeper, was put ashore alone he found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed, the beds unmade and the clock stopped. He returned to the landing stage to report the strange situation before going back up to the lighthouse with the relief ship’s second-mate and a seaman. A further search revealed that the lamps were cleaned and refilled and a set of oilskins were found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them. The only sign of anything amiss was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. There was no sign of the lighthouse keepers inside or outside the lighthouse.

Moore and three volunteer seamen were left to attend the light and the relief ship returned to the shore station. The men that remained on the island searched everywhere for clues as to the fate of the keepers. Apart from recent storm damage they could find nothing.

Maxwell Davies provided his own libretto for his opera which has a Prologue and one Act. The Prologue is based on the Court of Enquiry with flashbacks of the relief officer’s visit to the lighthouse and what they found there. The single Act concerns the supposed events at the lighthouse leading to their ‘disappearance’ and Maxwell Davies’ suggesting what might have been possible given the isolation during the storm bound period.

Part 1: Prologue - The Court of Enquiry

The angular orchestral opening is soon joined by the three soloists, Neil Mackie (tenor) as Officer I, Christopher Keyte (baritone) as Officer II and Ian Comboy (bass) as Officer III, singing, ‘From the records of Court of Enquiry into the unnatural disappearance of three lighthouse-keepers…’

Neil Mackie is ideal in the rather anguished tenor voice of Officer 1 and, with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conducting members of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra creates a brooding atmosphere. There are modernist touches present but, such is Maxwell Davies’ sense of drama and theatre, he never allows the music to become mere posturing, always using his distinctive style to create images and atmosphere. The strange cries and drooping mournful sounds of the birds are wholly evocative and, when Ian Comboy enters on the words, ‘We have cleared the Hell point. Suddenly slack water, so flat, black. Uncanny…’ he pulls every ounce of feeling and drama from the text.

The series of flashbacks continue when Neil Mackie sings, ‘Look out astern. A light! A triangle of lights…’ But Christopher Keyte brings us back directly to the court of enquiry with, ‘No Sir, I did not see the lights…’.

The way Maxwell Davies has set his text for the Prologue, a section that after all could have failed without the flashbacks, is masterly. When Neil Mackie returns to the events with the words, ‘The dawn was a bilge grey smudge in the blackness…’ the effect of the narrative and Maxwell Davies’ orchestration is spellbinding.

As the prologue continues to explain what the officers found at the deserted lighthouse, Neil Mackie sings, ‘No lighthouse keepers came down to meet us…’  This trio of soloists are terrific and, as each sings their part, they further build the haunting atmosphere of gloom and dread.

Indeed, such is the sense of fear that when all they discover at the lighthouse is rats, the terror is palpable. The three come together to conclude the Prologue with, ‘The lighthouse is now dead, except for its robot lantern…’. Maxwell Davies’ writing for these three voices is superb, with his orchestration adding so much.

Part 2: Act

The instrumental motif leads on from the Prologue into the Act by which time the listener is already completely engrossed in the melancholy drama and mystery of the deserted lighthouse. The composer sets out the characters of his lighthouse crew with Ian Comboy taking the roll of Arthur, a religious fanatic, Christopher Keyte, as Blazes, a rather antagonistic individual and Neil Mackie as Sandy, the voice of relative reason between the other two, yet still not without a hint of derision.

Over a game of cards these soloists create a sense of increasing tension and loss of reality. The light is extinguished by a lightning strike as the keepers continue their game of cribbage. Ian Comboy in his other role as the Voice of the Cards provides the narrative of the events around the players.

Blazes’ song is a real triumph, accompanied by fiddle, banjo and bones, showing Maxwell Davies’ ability to place a common place and popular tune within an immensely dramatic context, with Christopher Keyte on great form and a provocation to the pious Arthur.

Sandy’s song, a ballad, is accompanied by cello and an out of tune upright piano. The others join in this song as the palpable isolation and loneliness of the three keepers becomes more apparent.

Arthur, despite his joining in Sandy’s song, disapproves and sings a revivalist style hymn with complete with wind instruments and tambourine. Sandy and Blazes join in the hymn before Blazes comments, ‘Well done Arthur, nothing like a bit of old blood and thunder…’

But the antagonism remains as they notice that a mist has come down and the foghorn should be sounded. Some of the composer’s finest atmospheric music follows before a horn solo provides a raucous sound with Arthur singing, ‘The cry of the beast across the sleeping world. One night that cry will be answered from the deep,’ as the tension mounts even further.

Instrumental sounds add to the terror as the keeper’s imaginations take over, with Blazes imagining an old woman with a streaming face staring at him. Sandy sings, ‘They are coming in at the door…’ whilst Blazes sings, ‘The room is full of ghosts…’ and, as insanity takes over, Sandy decides that ‘They want us, they need us. They have to take us back…’’

Arthur sings, ‘The beast is called out from his grave…’ accompanied with Maxwell Davies’ inspired sounds of rattling bones.  The three eyes of ‘the beast’ approach as the keepers are lured to the door in the most instrumentally dramatic section. Arthur tells them, ‘The only cure is to kill the beast…’ All three join in a hymn like tune overlaid by dissonant counterpoint building until a pitch is reached and out of the light the three become the three officers of the Prologue, who sing ‘We had to defend ourselves…’

As they leave and the light dims, the three lighthouse keepers re-appear seemingly as ghosts. The ghostly keepers sing, ‘In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost… Just go on keeping the Beast from the door.’ The instrumental ensemble gives out the rhythm of the opening before a sudden end.

This is a masterly opera, terrific theatre. Anyone with the slightest interest in 20th century opera should snap this up. The performances are first rate as is the recording. There are notes and a synopsis by the composer as well as an English libretto available from Naxos on line.

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