It is surprising there are not more operas on the theme of ghosts and the supernatural. By its very nature, music can add an extra dimension beyond the physical and the best operas that do so, such as Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, conjure an alternative world that is highly atmospheric.
Written a couple of decades after the Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse is cast in a similar mould. This is also a chamber opera, lasting only 75 minutes and with a small orchestral ensemble of 12 players that belies its size in the other-worldly sounds the composer draws from it. It is ideal for a company that goes out on the road, such as English Touring Opera, which will be taking The Lighthouse across the country until mid-November.
As in all the best stories of the supernatural, The Lighthouse poses more questions than it answers. Officers come to investigate the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. How and why did they vanish? We see the events being re-enacted, as ghosts from the men’s past are resurrected and one of the keepers believes the Beast is coming to claim them. Like the shipwrecked boys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, they descend into madness and violence, only to discover that the Beast lies inside each one of them.
It does not take much to get the drama of The Lighthouse to work its dark magic, but Ted Huffman’s production, which adds an interval, does the necessary with the utmost skill. A half cylinder of a set suggests the claustrophobic lighthouse interior. An intricate dance of shadows plays on the wall.
Maxwell Davies tests his performers to the limit. His writing for the voice can be ungrateful and Adam Tunnicliffe is stretched by the tenor role of Sandy. But Nicholas Merryweather makes a convincingly crazed Blazes and Richard Mosley-Evans is excellent as the old sea-dog Arthur. Out of his 12 musicians, the composer conjures a wealth of sounds, from foghorn and bird calls, to a chilling draught that raises goose bumps on the skin. The Aurora Orchestra under conductor Richard Baker plays with skill, as it has to. Never mind the Beast on stage. The Devil is in that solo trumpet part.