Davies :The Lighthouse
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DAVIES: The Lighthouse

spacer Mackie, Keyte, Comboy; Members of the BBC Philharmonic, Davies. English text. Naxos 8.660354


With his 1980 chamber opera The Lighthouse, British composer Peter Maxwell Davies took a true story about the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote Scottish lighthouse in 1900 and turned it into a fun, creepy and wholly original modern musical ghost story, with a great plot twist at the end. Listening to this Naxos release, a reissue of a 1994 recording from Collins Classics, it becomes clear why this is Davies’s most frequently performed opera. Davies’s treatment of the story begins with three officers from a lighthouse supply ship appearing before a Court of Enquiry, testifying about what they discovered. (The questions are cleverly represented by a virtuoso solo horn from the orchestra.) A legal interrogation at the top of a story with a British maritime setting inevitably evokes Peter Grimes, yet the spare, ominous atmospherics are even more reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw. The testimony of the officers in the courtroom alternates with flashbacks of their ship’s journey out to the lighthouse amid an unexpected storm. Davies’s wizardly orchestration is superbly illustrative, with squalling woodwinds, accented string tremolos and lightning-quick marimba figures bringing the macabre story vividly to life. When one officer says “Fingers of mist, clammy, unnatural, reached down from the tower toward us,” a craggy string line seems to do exactly that. The officers’ vocal melodies are primarily tonal in their outlines, but the accompaniments meander deliberately far afield, both harmonically and rhythmically, creating tension and unrest, but also a spark of mischief, as if the composer secretly relished the terrible discoveries yet to come.

This is only the Prologue; in the single act that follows, the three protagonists become the three vanished keepers, seated at the table inside their lighthouse, prior to their disappearance. We witness civil but tense interactions among the three. Davies does a skillful job of differentiating the men vocally: Arthur, the bass (Ian Comboy), is a pompous religious fanatic; Blazes, the baritone (Christopher Keyte), is irked by Arthur’s hypocrisy; Sandy, the tenor (Neil Mackie), does his best to keep the peace. Each man sings a song to break the tension, and these tunes, though cheery on the surface (they’re all in a bright major tonality, which is in itself shocking within the opera’s modernist context), have dark undertones in their content. Mental disintegration ensues, and the three become convinced that a three-eyed Beast — a menacing embodiment of all their guilty consciences — is approaching the lighthouse; this is served with grandly building musical cacophony, driven by thwacks on a concert bass drum. I won’t give away the dramatic ending; it’s well worth buying this CD and enjoying the dénouement yourself. Comboy, Keyte and Mackie, who double as the three ship officers in the Prologue, bring their characters to vivid life with powerful, extroverted singing and impressive musicianship; the roles are very demanding, both dramatically and musically. Under the composer’s direction, the orchestra, composed of members of the BBC Philharmonic, churns with musical description. spacer 


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