The Lighthouse, English Touring Opera, ETO, Linbury Studio, Covent Garden, October 2012

Just after Christmas in the year 1900 a steamer went to the Flannan Islands Lighthouse bringing a keeper to relieve one of the three keepers already there. The Flannan Isles are a lonely spot beyond the Outer Hebrides, and when the steamer arrived the three keepers had vanished into thin air. What happened?

All images ETO/ Richard Hubert Smith

This remarkable chamber opera by Peter Maxwell Davies tells us. Or does it? In the first half three officers who arrived at the Lighthouse tell a later enquiry what they encountered. Everything apparently in order, a meal partly eaten, a chair lying slightly broken, and not a soul to be seen. Their reports on the chair differ, as would any eyewitness accounts, but what they found seems clear enough. Then in part two, after the interval, the three officers, strongly sung and with excellent diction by Adam Tunnicliffe, Nicholas Merryweather and Richard Mosley-Evans, reappear as the three lighthouse keepers.

The three lighthouse keepers

Three people with their own ghosts, each a little worrisome in his own way. Mosley-Evans as the bass is a religious nut, prone to Biblical visions, and in a Peter Grimes type of way sings, “Time to light the lantern shining across the seas of sinfulness”. Is he crazy, or is Merryweather the baritone the crazy one, singing of a heinous crime he got away with as a teenager? The music already got strangely excitable in the first half and in the second half it heaves with emotional energy. Played by a smallish group of instrumentalists it was directed by Richard Baker, who kept the tension going very well.

Tension arises

Because of stormy seas the keepers had been left alone too long, and their equanimity is beginning to crack. Tunnicliffe as the tenor is the first to be hit, and this production, brilliantly directed by Ted Huffman, with designs by Neil Irish, leaves us wondering what will happen next. Lighting by Guy Hoare is superb, with its subtle changes from cold to warm, and in the end it gives a fine impression of a lighthouse beam rotating and playing on a scene that is not quite what it seems.

To find the answer, or at least an answer, as to what happened witness the opera yourself. It’s a powerful work.

Performances continue at the Linbury Studio Theatre, 13th Oct – 7:45 pm; West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 16th Oct – 7:30 pm; Exeter Northcott, 24th Oct – 7:30 pm; Harrogate Theatre, 1st Nov – 7:30 pm; Theatre Royal Bath, 6th Nov – 7:30 pm; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 9th Nov – 7:30 pm. For details click here.

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