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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].

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