Darkly dissonant chamber opera The Lighthouse proves a good fit for ambitious young company BK Opera.
Inspired by a true story, English composer Peter Maxwell Davies crafted his 1980 opera The Lighthouse for three men, neatly arranging the roles for tenor, baritone and bass.
A brief prologue sees three officers recount the discovery of a freshly abandoned lighthouse, their testimony continuing as they reenact the grim discovery. Punctuated by the full light of the lantern, the second half goes on to show the descent into madness of the three original inhabitants, played by the same three performers.
Favouring menace over melody, Davies’ sparing score relies on the sturdy musicality of the three singers, who are thankfully very well cast here. In line with the relatively modest scale of production, the original orchestration for twelve musicians is played simply by electric keyboard and French horn. Sung Won Choi finds some difficulties in the keyboard score yet maintains the musical line admirably. Phoebe Smithies capably delivers the quirky character required of the horn.
Conductor Evan Lawson has prepared the challenging music to a solid standard, keeping a tight rein on the singers and musicians as the performance progresses. Seen in full light, Lawson’s tendency to mouth the words of the score is an unnecessary distraction for the audience; this practice may well lessen with the confidence of further performances.
The spooky atmosphere is effectively conveyed by the solid stage setting, which consists of a series of panels in the shape of the octagon at the top of a lighthouse. Impressively, the three voices readily carry over the front perspex panels. Set designer Casey Harper-Wood has also designed the costumes, which move from long dark pea coats for the officers to warmly comfortable day wear for the ill-fated lighthouse team.
Gabriel Bethune’s lighting adds to the unsettling atmosphere, with flashing LED strips and theatrical haze reaching a peak as the story climaxes. Further characterful context to the clifftop setting comes from Jack Burmeister’s subtly evocative sound design.
The three singers work well as a tight ensemble, blending smoothly in their vocals and matching each other in acting level and style under the direction of Kate Millett. Millett does not stint on the seriousness of the drama, providing no easy answers to the disturbing mystery.
Sung in English, clarity of the unfamiliar opera was aided by a flat panel screen crisply displaying perfectly synchronised subtitles.
Bass Henry Shaw delivers hefty vocal power, his richly resonant voice ideally suited to the darkness of the drama. Shaw’s gift for vocal expression comes to the fore in an extended sequence in which sings off stage as the Voice of Cards, putting into words the demonic influence of the deck of cards with which the other two men play.
In fine form, baritone Jonathan Rumsam sings with a deceptive sense of ease. Rumsam provides some welcome comic relief when he accompanies himself on banjo as Blazes sings about his early life in a song that begins innocently enough before descending into murder.
Tenor Daniel Sinfield complements the lustrous quality of his vocal tone with affecting expression, maintaining the confusion and rising tension of his two characters in a highly focused performance.
For the more daring operagoers tired of the classics, The Lighthouse is an all too rare chance to see a well-sung performance of a lesser known work. Full credit to BK Opera for their drive in presently this demanding work.