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 MÚr 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
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.’
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’.
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
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.
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
Cited in Justin Vickers, ‘Peter Maxwell Davies’s variations on a
theme: a catalog of the “sea” works’, Notes, 2015,
In the liner note to the Maggini Quartet’s 2006 recording [Naxos].
image_description=Shadwell Opera: The Lighthouse at Hackney Showroom
product_title=Shadwell Opera: The Lighthouse at Hackney Showroom
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Programme image for Shadwell Opera’s The Lighthouse
Design credit: Rebecca Pitt