Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Bampton Classical Opera: Bride & Gloom at St John's Smith Square

Last week the Office of National Statistics published figures showing that in the UK the number of women getting married has fallen below 50%.

A new recording of Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa

Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa is in some ways a work with a troubled and turbulent history. It is defined by the time in which it was written – 1968 – a period of student protest throughout central Europe. Its first performance was abandoned because the Hamburg chorus refused to perform under the Red Flag which had been placed on stage; and Henze himself decided he wouldn’t conduct it at all after police stormed the concert hall to remove protesters, among them the librettist Ernst Schnabel.

La traviata at the Palais Garnier

The clatter of information was overwhelmed by soaring bel canto, Verdi’s domestic tragedy destroyed by director Simon Stone, resurrected by conductor Michele Mariotti, a tour de force for South African soprano Pretty Yende.

San Jose Pops the Cork With Fledermaus

Opera San Jose vivaciously kicked off its 2019–2020 season with a heady version of Strauss’ immortal Die Fledermaus that had all the effervescence of vintage champagne.

Tempestuous Francesca da Rimini opens Concertgebouw Saturday matinee series

Two Russian love letters to the tragic thirteenth century noblewoman Francesca da Rimini inaugurated the Saturday matinee series at the Concertgebouw.

Immortal Beloved: Beethoven Festival at Wigmore Hall

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park 2019

Lyric Opera of Chicago presented this year’s annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park. The evening’s program featured a range of selections from works to be presented in the 2019–2020 season along with arias and scenes from other notable and representative operas.

Prom 74: Uplifting Beethoven from Andrew Manze and the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover

Ceremony, drama and passion: this Beethoven Night by the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover under their Chief Conductor Andrew Manze had all three and served them up with vigour and a compelling freshness, giving Prommers at this eve-of-Last-Night concert an exciting and uplifting evening.

Prom 69: Elena Stikhina’s auspicious UK debut in a dazzling Czech Philharmonic concert

Rarely can any singer have made such an unforgettable UK debut in just twelve minutes of music. That was unquestionably the case with the Russian soprano, Elena Stikhina, who in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, sang with such compelling stage magnetism and with a voice that has everything you could possibly want.

Prom 68: Wagner Abend - Christine Goerke overwhelms as Brünnhilde

Wagner Nights at the Proms were once enormously popular, especially on the programmes of Sir Henry Wood. They have become less so, perhaps because they are simply unfashionable today, but this one given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Marc Albrecht steered clear of the ‘bleeding chunk’ format which was usually the norm. It was still chunky, but in an almost linear, logical way and benefited hugely from being operatic (when we got to the Wagner) rather than predominantly orchestral.

Prom 65: Danae Kontora excels in Mozart and Strauss

On the page this looked rather a ‘pick-and-mix’ sort of Prom from the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis, who was making his Proms debut. In the event, it was not so much a Chinese take-away as a Michelin-starred feast for musical gourmands.

British Youth Opera: Rossini's La Cenerentola

Stendhal (as recorded in his Life of Rossini) was not a fan of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, complaining that after the first few bars of the Introduzione he was already suffering from a ‘faint feeling of nausea’, a condition which ‘never entirely dissipated, [recurring] periodically throughout the opera, and with increasing violence’.

La traviata at the Arena di Verona

There is esoteric opera — 16,500 spectators at this year’s Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, and there is pop opera — upwards of 500,000 spectators for the opera festival at the Arena di Verona, one quarter of them for an over-the-top new production of La traviata, designed and directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner brings Benvenuto Cellini to the Proms

Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini is quite rarity on UK stages. Covent Garden last performed it in 1976 and English National Opera performed it for the first time in 2014 (in Terry Gilliam's riotous production), and yet the opera never quite goes away either.

Prom 58: varied narratives from the BBCSSO and Ilan Volkov

There are many ways and means to tell a story: through prose, poetry, sounds, pictures, colours, movement.

Prom 53: Elgar’s emotionally charged Music Makers

British music with an English and strong European accent marked this Prom featuring three well-wrought works, stylistically worlds apart but each characterised by a highly individual musical personality.

Scoring a Century: British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre

‘It is well known that Eisler was a master of the art of self-contradiction, using non-sequitur, change of tack and playing devil’s advocate in a brilliantly ironic way in an attempt to look at a problem from every angle, to expose it fully to the gaze of his interlocutor. For an ordinary person to take part in this, let alone keep up with the pace and fully appreciate the wide range of references, which his enormous reading threw out, was wonderfully stimulating, and exhausting.’

Prom 55: Handel's Jephtha

‘For many it is the masterpiece among his oratorios.’

Opera della Luna's HMS Pinafore sails the seas at Wilton's Music Hall

The original production of HMS Pinafore opened at the Opera Comique in London on 25th May 1878 and ran for an astonishing 571 performances. Opera della Luna’s HMS Pinafore, which has been cresting the operatic oceans for over twenty years now, has notched up almost as many performances.

Spectra Ensemble present Treemonisha at Grimeborn

‘We see him now as one of the most important creators of his generation, certainly comparable to Schoenberg.’ T.J. Anderson, who reconstructed the score of Scott Joplin’s only surviving opera, Treemonisha, for its first staged production in 1972, was probably rather over-enthusiastic in his assessment.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Shadwell Opera: <em>The Lighthouse</em> at Hackney Showroom
12 Nov 2017

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Shadwell Opera: The Lighthouse at Hackney Showroom

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Programme image for Shadwell Opera’s The Lighthouse

Design credit: Rebecca Pitt

 

Henry James’s Preface to his novella The Turn of the Screw would make a fitting epigraph to Peter Maxwell Davies’s 1979 chamber opera, The Lighthouse, which presents the legend of the disappearance of three lighthouse-keepers at Eilean Mòr of the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides in December 1900. Conducting a routine tour, the supply ship, Hesperus, was surprised to find no one waiting on the jetty; inside the lighthouse, dishevelled beds and an open front door seemed to suggest that the inhabitants had left in a hurry and would shortly return. The light, though functioning, was out; the last log entry had been made at 9am on 15th December. The three men had simply vanished into thin air.

Indeed, in an interview shortly after the opera was first performed, Davies himself acknowledged the unfathomability of the mystery: ‘One night the light failed, and when the investigators came, the three lighthouse keepers were simply gone, with no explanation whatsoever … I've found that audience members all have their own interpretations as to what may have happened. Most agree, however, that, whatever it was, it was pretty extraordinary, even cataclysmic.’ With Jamesian mischief, he added, ‘I’ve left a few clues - some of them contradictory - but for the most part, it’s up to the audience to find out what went on’.

Storms, freak accidents and other surmises remain just speculation. And, to paraphrase James, ‘the opera won’t tell’. But, Maxwell Davies draws upon and extends former operatic representations - such as Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, Ethyl Smyth’s The Wreckers and Britten’s Peter Grimes - of the irresistible tug of the tide which drags those whose lives depend upon the ocean towards madness and death.

Davies wrote his own libretto and described working in his cliff-top home in Rackwick on Hoy, looking at a seascape which must have confronted seafarers since time immemorial: ‘It was very stormy and very dramatic and I think it all helped in setting the atmosphere. I used a lot of noises from storms and from the sea in the work and I think the whole thing is quite rightly permeated by tensions which arrive out of extreme storm conditions at sea.’ [1] The composer had moved to the Orkney Islands in January 1971, seeking seclusion and respite from the noisy clamour of London life. Alongside, and consuming, the stillness and silence, the composer found the sea: the motions and music of the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea - and of the sea-birds and seals - were to shape his own compositional voice.

Hackney Showroom is a long way from the sea. But, in this austere room director Jack Furness and his designer Alex Berry skilfully evoke the claustrophobic intensity of extended isolation. Daniel Spreadborough’s strobe streaks and floodlight flashes sear through the prevailing darkness, incessantly startling and disorientating audience members hit by a sudden glare. Interestingly, the fifth of Davies’s ten Naxos Quartets is subtitled ‘Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland’ in reference to, in the composer’s words, ‘not only the dramatic nocturnal sweep of a lighthouse beam across different textures of sea and shore, but to the various lighthouse “calls” - each one can be identified by the individual rhythms of its flashes of light’. [2] Spreadborough imitates such ‘calls’, creating constantly shifting patterns and surfaces - even projecting the fluttering movement of a small aquarium onto a rear wall - which, together with the complex transformations of Davies’s stark, sometimes ear-splitting, score create a world of portentous unrest.

In the Prologue, three officers from the supply ship present their testimonies before a Court of Inquiry in Edinburgh. Berry’s scaffolding makes for a rather abstract courtroom, but the sparseness suggests the disturbing ‘exposure’ of the men’s experiences in the courtroom. The solo horn (superbly played by Jonathan Farey, from the Showroom gallery) conducts an interrogation, the men’s replies offering retrospective clarification of the question posed; the unsettling dislocation is furthered by the discrepancies between the men’s accounts which infer omission or deception.

Taking the witness stand, like Grimes stepping up ‘into the dock’, tenor Paul Curievici offered a gripping narration of wide-eyed terror, though it was occasionally difficult to discern all the details of the evocative text: ‘In silence the ship peeled a steely-furrow from the shale-grey flatness, opening and closing an oily slit. The dawn a corpse-grey scowl.’ Baritone Pauls Putnins, balancing in turbulent light on the central scaffold, and bass Owain Browne, peering into the aquarium stage-left, interspersed more prosaic recollections, until the power of memory seemed to transport the three officers back to the lighthouse door, the ensemble reflections shifting between past and present tense. The voices combined resonantly to record the inquest’s conclusion: ‘death by misadventure’. The lighthouse, now automatic, has been abandoned: ‘its ghosts are shut in, sealed in, tight’.

The main action, subtitled, ‘The Cry of the Beast’, followed on without a break (originally Davies had stipulated a short intermission), as we slipped back in time and the three officers transformed into the lighthouse-keepers themselves, taking their seats at a kitchen table - the teapot an uncanny reminder of domesticity - in a centrally-placed ring. The three singers, who seemed untroubled by the virtuosic demands made upon them, created strongly individualised characters and intimated relationships as unstable and potentially volatile as the weather outside. The bible-thumping zealotry of Arthur (Putnins) infuriates Blazes (Browne), and Sandy (Curievici) struggles to keep the peace. They bicker edgily and squabble over a game of cribbage, as isolation, an undercurrent of sexual tension, and the incalculable vastness and violence of the ocean threaten to tip the men into madness.

Songs - stylistic pastiches and parodies of ballads and hymns - are sung in an effort to keep the tension at bay; and the vocal lyricism and brief harmonic steadiness does offer a contrast to the prevailing parlando which rockily rides the dissonant accompaniment. But, the songs bring back ghosts and guilt from the past. Browne truly ‘blazed’ in a violent account of abuse in which guttural splutterings and falsetto shrieks took us to the world of Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. Putnins’ fire-and-brimstone bellowing boomed with terrifying might and menace, accompanied by strident brass. Curievici’s ardent, sweet-toned love song reached ecstatic heights and brought about some rapprochement.

But, like the water which (literally) sloshed around their ankles, the fear cannot be quelled. Even the revivalist hymn which is a collective chorus of defence becomes more fevered than fervent, as the men are gripped by the belief that a ‘beast’ is coming for them. Their insane terror escalates when they mistake the lights of the supply ship, which shine through the sea-mists, as the eyes of the ‘beast’.

At the close, a chaotic cacophony of sound and light engulfed the men, and us, bringing to a spine-chilling close the tremendously incisive performance by the 12-piece Shadwell Ensemble, conducted with precision and economy by Finnegan Downie Dear. The Ensemble conveyed every macabre twitching texture, and explosive flash and flicker - wind and wave, by turn an eerie whisper or wailing squall - of Davies’s score. The Ensemble was placed on the right-hand side of the studio space, the aim being to re-evaluate ‘the boundary between stage and orchestra pit which the stetting of a traditional opera house cannot provide’; and, it does indeed seem at times as if singers and players alike are being pitched and hurled by the ferocious ocean-scape which they are themselves creating.

The opera ends not with explanation but with enigma, although the repetition of the same music at the end of each part of the score might suggest a ‘twist’ worthy of An Inspector Calls or The Woman in Black. It doesn’t matter that, however resourceful the direction and design, the sharp tang of brine does not really permeate Hackney Showroom. We may not have been transported back to the Outer Hebrides in 1900, but we have been taken to dark places which, in James’s words, ‘reek with the air of Evil’, and at the close it’s the silence that is most terrifying.

Claire Seymour

Peter Maxwell Davies: The Lighthouse

Officer 1/Sandy - Paul Curievici, Officer 2/Blazes - Owain Browne, Officer 3/Arthur - Pauls Putnins; director - Jack Furness, conductor - Finnegan Downie Dear, designer - Alex Berry, lighting designer - Daniel Spreadborough, The Shadwell Ensemble.

Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs Studios, London; Saturday 11th November 2017.



[1] Cited in Justin Vickers, ‘Peter Maxwell Davies’s variations on a theme: a catalog of the "sea" works’, Notes, 2015, Vol.71(4).

[2] In the liner note to the Maggini Quartet’s 2006 recording [Naxos].

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):