Most operas begin with an overture. Peter Maxwell Davies’ “The Lighthouse” opens with an interrogation, a police investigation surrounding the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse-keepers stuck for months on a lonely rock in the middle of a stormy sea. Asking the questions is a deep insistent horn. Answering are a trio of sailors who ferried across a relief party only to find —-what?
This is a spooky tale worthy of Edgar Allen Poe, made all the creepier by Maxwell Davies’ masterful, if little known, score. I saw a particularly haunting presentation many years ago at Chicago Opera Theater and, in the way of haunting things, it has stayed with me ever since. While San Francisco’s Opera Parallele’s version is not so bone-chilling as my memory would have it, it is a well done, artfully sung resurrection of a too-long-neglected masterpiece.
The three lighthouse keepers double as the relief patrol testifying in the courtroom and are sung superbly by baritone Robert Orth as the contentious, free-wheeling Blazes, a man with a temper and a murky past; David Cushing who brings a powerful bass to the Bible-thumping Arthur and tenor Thomas Glenn as Sandy, the romantic who tries to keep peace among them. To tell their stories, the composer uses a myriad of themes: for the tough Blazes a folksy tune such as might be sung in a barroom, for Arthur a stirring Revivalist hymn and for Sandy an old fashioned love ballad .But there is blood and fear and sin behind their tales, creeping out for just a moment of truth.
The rest of Maxwell Davies’ score rolls with the roar of the waves or insinuates under the door with the mist, sometimes atonal, sometimes lyrical. Not as evocative as Britten’s seascapes, but painting a picture of its own.
When the relief comes, a plague of rats rushes out underfoot. To hear them tell it (but not the way they told it in court) the three keepers, driven mad by isolation — and each other — attack the relief patrol, each seeing his own particular nemesis in the officers’ shapes. And what can you do, this being self defense and all… But what are we to make of the three ghostly shapes that then come in, seat themselves at the table and begin the same banter as before? We are told that, because of its history, no keepers could be found and the lighthouse was automated. So who are these guys? It’s up to your imagination.
This is a chamber opera in the truest sense and San Francisco’s cavernous Z Space may not be the best venue for it. In order to enclose it, designer-director Brian Staufenbiel used black clad dancers, sometimes swirling, sometimes hiding under wide swatches of filmy fabric. Didn’t really work. While one of the many joys of an Opera Parallele production usually is this director’s visual concept, here it was almost intrusive. It might have been done better with projections and/or lighting. The stage fog didn’t really work (thankfully because it is choke-worthy) and the single projection screen for titles was way off to the side.
But the music, which is what matters, was impeccable under the baton of Nicole Paiement
and the singing and story were terrific. “The Lighthouse” is not for everyone. But once it grabs you in its spectral grip, it doesn’t let you go.