ETO excel in the darkness of The Lighthouse

A scene from The Lighthouse. (Picture by Richard Hubert Smith)
A scene from The Lighthouse. (Picture by Richard Hubert Smith)

The Lighthouse, English Touring Opera, Harrogate Theatre.

Three men in blue and grey naval uniforms are on stage. Tenor, baritone and bass.

For the purposes of a board of inquiry, the officers are reliving the moment they arrived on the foggy lighthouse in their shiny, crinkly sou’westers to discover the lighthouse keepers vanished without a trace.

The music pulsates with a minimalist, malevolent purr, punctuated by occasional sharp trills of piccolo or flute and sharp interjections of atonal dissonant shrieks of brass and strings in the restless style of the high priest of experimental classical music, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

I like the more, er, challenging strains of 20th century classic music but it’s not to everyone’s taste.

But, for this good, old-fashioned chiller, Peter Maxwell Davies’ typically modern music is just right. It’s easy to see why this kind of avant garde classical music had such an influence on movie soundtracks in the 1950s and 60s.

Peter Maxwell Davies’s modern opera, first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980. is based on a real-life disappearance at a Scottish lighthouse in 1900 and the first, short half sets the scene in a suitably murky fashion.

After the break, the story lifts the fog of mystery, revealing the missing lighthouse keepers to have been the victims of their claustrophobic surroudings, engulfed in the guilt of their own past misdeeds.

As madness ensues and the plot turns to violence, Maxwell Davies’s score changes, too, to reflect the wilder tone of events.

Sub-Kurt Weill folk songs on banjo and fiddle straight from a play by Bertold Brecht full of ribaldry and pithy lyrics, turbulent emotions reflected in more rumbustious music.

Like all tales of the unexpected, there’s a twist at the end when the three sailors of the opening scene return to reveal what really happened.

The score comes full circle, too, back to minimalism and dissonance, a gripping, spooky end to a gripping, spooky opera.

Expertly delivered by the ETO, it’s easy to see why The Lighthouse remains one of Maxwell Davies’ most popular works and why it’s attracted a healthy turnout at Harrogate Theatre for the first of a three-night visit.

But the town is lucky in some ways.

In the interval I’d overheard two of the audience chatting in Harrogate Theatre’s circle bar.

“The ETO don’t perform in Leicester. Leicester doesn’t do opera. Neither does Derby.”

“Yes,” says the other, “but surely you have to develop an audience by going somewhere time after time?”

Graham Chalmers