This past weekend Opera Parallèle presented another of their finely produced operas at Z Space in San Francisco. The venue’s 50-foot-deep stage allowed the directors to create the illusion of a storm swept Scottish island for the small and intimate audience. As always the acting, singing and music were superlative.
The 80-minute opera was written by the English composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who died this past March at the age of 81. Maxwell Davies was known for his radical thought, both musically and politically. But The Lighthouse is both lyrical and musically descriptive, even while using the complexities of contemporary classical music. You can hear the cry of the birds in the piccolo’s phrasing, the low moan of the foghorns in the horn and the building sweep of storm and madness that are the center of the opera’s action in the rising phrases of the 12 musicians that comprise the orchestra.
The poetic and incisive libretto, written by the composer, is based on a real-life event: the disappearance of three keepers from a lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides in 1900. An investigation offered no answers into the mystery of their disappearance, but returned an open verdict of death by misadventure.
The opera opens during the inquiry, when the three officers of the relief ship are questioned over what they found at the lighthouse. The interrogator is embodied in the voice of the French horn, and the officers answer in turn. What we learn from their testimony is that no one knows what happened and there is disagreement between the three about the details of the lighthouse. Reality seems slippery. And it slides into the supernatural when the men describe what they see waiting for them at the jetty. One sees three selkies (the shape-shifting seals of Celtic mythology), another three scarfs (bat-like birds: “their clawed wings spread wide”) and the third three gibbies (cats: “but wilder sinewy beasts”).
The next scene is inside the lighthouse, and the three singers have transformed into the three keepers: Sandy, Blazes and Arthur. Isolation and the pounding ocean have the men on each other’s nerves. To calm down, they sing a series of songs, but the songs only reveal their dark histories and incite their even darker emotions.
Blazes, baritone Robert Orth, sings a raucous ballad to banjo and percussion, revealing a degraded childhood of murder and theft. Sandy sings a sentimental parlor love song of dubious urges to an out-of-tune piano, and Thoman Glenn’s tenor has the vibrant ring of the Northern lands. David Cushing uses his substantial and resonant bass to boom out a hymn as the fanatically religious Arthur. It is Arthur who provides the vision of the Beast for his companions, who see their dark lives taking form in the polymorphous terrors of the raging ocean.
Director Brian Stauffenbiel has envisioned a ghostly and kinetic stage set for the opera. A huge winding and skeletal metal stairway takes the center of the stage, representing both the supply ship and the lighthouse. Suspended from the heights of the stage are two long panels of blue-grey fabric. These are attached to long poles and manipulated by four fabric dancers (Stefan DiBiase, Quilet Rarang, Rachel Strickland and Bryon Heinrich) dressed in slick black unitards and resembling the selkies that have long inhabited the Scottish imagination. The fabric transforms throughout the opera, becoming the ocean, the mist and fog, the rat-invested jetty and the ghosts of the keepers’ pasts. Matthew Antaky’s lighting design enhances the eerie effects of the set, and the whole is both mysterious and chilling.
The music is beautifully presented and played under the direction of Nicole Paiement. The cream of the Bay Area’s contemporary classical musicians were placed onstage, 10 instrumentalists to the right and two percussionists to the left, just outside the action, which gave the sound and production a compactness and directness. Z Space’s 230-seat main theater added to the experience. It was both intimate and illusory.
I had the good fortune to see “The Lighthouse” in Exeter in 2012. This was part of the English Touring Opera’s season. The production began at the Linbury Studio at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House’s experimental and chamber opera stage. The singers and musicians were excellent, meticulous and beautifully trained. And Maxell Davies was at the London opening. But like many English performances it lacked a level of emotional punch. That can’t be said of the Opera Parallèle production, which was compelling, dramatic and mysterious. Everything one can wish for in an opera.
– Jaime Robles
Photo: Thomas Glenn (left), Robert Orth, and David Cushing (above) Opera Parallèle’s new production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ “The Lighthouse.”