Celebrating their return with far from jubilant fare for the occasion, Artistic Director Kate Millett chose for her audience what brings that always-exciting and new experience of a highly fascinating work not widely known.
English composer Peter Maxwell Davies’ short chamber opera, The Lighthouse, received its Melbourne premiere on Thursday evening in the small and intimate theatrette of the Brunswick Mechanics Institute in front of 40 or so.
A dark and intriguing work lit by clever injections of creativity and wit which premiered in Edinburgh in 1980, there is much that resonates at its core that suggests it is a work for any time.
Davies, a composer of several operas who delved into a variety of musical styles, based his 80-minute prologue and one act work on the true story of the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers at the Flannan Isles Lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in 1900.
Left to their devices in a windy, stormy and geographically and challengingly isolated outpost when relief is long overdue and rations have dangerously dwindled – what could possibly go wrong?
According to the official inquiry, it was concluded that their disappearances were likely the result of having been washed away by waves while repairing a crane.
But, in an imaginatively fictional interpretation of events which unfold as part of his own brilliantly structured libretto, Davies draws from it a disturbingly powerful and psychologically driven vision.
Cast for tenor, baritone and bass in twin roles as both officers at the inquiry and lightkeepers – Daniel Sinfield, Jonathan Rumsam and Henry Shaw respectively gave vivid and creditable performances on opening night – Davies masterfully conjures a scenario where two perspectives meet.
On one side, the anxious officers face interrogation – piquantly depicted as questions by delightful horn solos – and a sense of foreboding and fear as their approach to the lighthouse is re-enacted.
On the other, with heightened awareness of their predicament and growing sense of their struggles with each other in such confined space, the lightkeepers — Sandy the romantic, Blazes the murderer and Arthur the evangelist – face the ghosts of their past as they are reduced to madness.
The climactic collision between the two sides occurs with overwhelming supernatural misfortune.
Thoughtfully and compactly directed as it was by Millett, the score’s original orchestral reduction to an arrangement for just keyboard and horn – with a banjo brought out by lightkeeper Blazes and played by Rumsam in a most entertaining guilt-exposing murder ballad – felt awkwardly skeletal and lacking expectant force and energy.
If the meat of the score was wanting, however, Jack Burmeister’s sound design characterised by whispering waves and distant foghorns added a richness and depth to the stage.
Set and costume designs by Casey Harper-Wood as well as Gabriel Bethune’s perspective-shifting and moody lighting, likewise, drew a picture of well-focused and broodingly evocative strength.
Played out within a conceptually-apt enclosed, glazed, polygonal space representing a lighthouse lantern, both inquiry and lighthouse settings were accommodated superbly.
With the three singers performing within its boundaries, sound projection was compromised at times. Could the use of panels of scrim or the front-facing section removed have been considered options?
Nonetheless, individually, the qualities in Sinfield’s passionately sculptured tenor, Rumsam’s animated warm baritone and Shaw’s stable and sonorous bass emanated adequately. And while the text was spelt out on a digital screen, its content was commendably relayed with clarity.
Singing as a trio, the voices had some difficulty settling and the distraction created by their attentions on conductor Evan Lawson, as well as Lawson himself often miming the words to one side, didn’t go unnoticed.
Sung Won Choi demonstrated great nimbleness and endurance at the keyboard while Phoebe Smithies, hidden from view and beginning somewhat nervous-sounding, blew forth Davies’ wonderful writing for horn.
Presented on the slimmest of budgets, BK Opera’s The Lighthouse deftly outlines the mystery and intrigue of Davies’ work despite shortfalls in delivery. Nevertheless, your own curiosity should tempt you into seeing it for yourself.
Brunswick Mechanics Performing Arts Centre, 270 Sydney Road, Brunswick
Performance: Thursday 8 September 2022
Season continues to 10 September 2022
For more information, visit: www.bkopera.com.au for details.
Image: Jonathan Rumsam, Daniel Sinfield and Henry Shaw feature in The Lighthouse (supplied)
Review: Paul Selar