THE LIGHTHOUSE - Opera Review

 WHAT: The Lighthouse

WHEN: 8-10 September 2022

WHERE: Brunswick Mechanics Institute

WRITTEN & COMPOSED BY: Peter Maxwell Davies

DIRECTED BY: Kate Millett

CONDUCTED BY: Evan Lawson

DESIGNED BY: Casey Harper-Wood

LIGHTING BY: Gabriel Bethune

SOUND BY: Jack Burmeister

PERFORMED BY: Sung Won Choi, Jonathan Rumsan, Henry Shaw, Daniel Sinfield, Phoebe Smithies

Henry Shaw, Jonathan Rumsam, Daniel Sinfield, Sung Won Choi, and Evan Lawson

Winter is officially over but we Melburnians know it will be months before it really warms up again. As such, this is the perfect time of year for thrillers and BK Opera has brought us the perfect feast of thrills and frights to revel in on these dark, cold nights. The Lighthouse, a chamber opera by the late Peter Maxwell Davies written in 1979, is being performed at Brunswick Mechanics Institute and will chill you to the bones despite the warmth and comfort of the theatre you are sitting in.

The Lighthouse is a chamber opera based on a horror story which was based on a true account of three lighthouse keepers in Scotland who went missing without a trace. It is an opera in 2 acts. The first - titled 'The Lighthouse' - has the crew of the relief ship recounting their arduous sea journey to deliver provisions and the mystery of the disappeared lighthouse keepers. This part of the opera is very straight narrative story telling with little melodic relief although there is some excitement in the rats sequence.

It is the second act where the real magic happens though. 'The Cry of The Beast' puts us in the lighthouse on the night the three men disappear and give us a window into the madness and chaos which might have made up their final evening. And then there is the cherry on top - the coda. This is the stuff nightmares are made of!

When you are a man alone on an isolated rock, surrounded by deadly seas and in the company of two other men who were strangers when the adventure first began, strange things happen in your heart and mind. Sandy (Daniel Sinfield), Blazes (Jonathan Rumsam), and Arthur (Henry Shaw) spend what will be their last night on this earth eating oatcakes and tea, because all other provisions long ran out, desperate for the relief ship to arrive and terrified by the rising storm.

Sinfield's light tenor brings a sweet romanticism to his solo aria, and Rumsam is just delightful as he gads about the stage with a banjo telling a torrid tale of a mispent and inglorious youth. Shaw is suitably imposing with his developing bass-baritone voice as he rains down an evangelistic zeal worthy of the Crusades. Preaching about the fatted calf, it is no surprise that radical Christianity brings about the doom about to descend on them all.

These young singers are still developing their stage craft and Evan Lawson does an excellent job of guiding them strongly through a very complex musical journey whilst creating exquisite dynamics and details in the playing by Sung Won Choi (piano) and Phoebe Smithies (french horn). I admit to loving the horn work. The chamber opera is written for 6 instruments, but what is achieved with piano and horn (and banjo) along with a clever and powerful sound design (Jack Burmeister) gives all the body needed and more than enough chills. The horn is not just an instrument in this production of The Lighthouse - it is another character.

Kate Millett has directed this production with clever restraint, not getting in the way of the singers or Lawson, but creating a very clear concept and intention which has been ably realised by Casey Harper-Wood. In fact, as you enter the theatre the set creates a definite sense of wow and a curiosity on how the show will work. An imperfect hexagon of mirrored panels evidently represent the lighthouse and Gabriel Bethune's lighting lets us inside and textures the space effectively. 

My only regret is the panels prevented the sound waves of the voices from filling the room and affecting our bodies. Thus we did lose some of the visceral possibilities of the show. Perhaps having at least one of the panels (maybe the one facing the repetiteur) as a scrim rather than a solid would have allowed us to appreciate being in the room with the singers. Instead, I found myself feeling a bit like I was watching TV. 

I really can't praise and recommend The Lighthouse enough. It has a sadly short season, but go out and see it this weekend if you can. If you have never been to opera this is the opera to go and see to wet your feet - just don't step too close to the cliff edge or you may descend into the madness which befell these poor men!

4 Stars

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