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Briefly Noted: 'The Lighthouse'

available at Amazon
P. Maxwell Davies, The Lighthouse, N. Mackie, C. Keyte, I. Comboy, BBC Philharmonic, P. Maxwell Davies

(released on May 27, 2014)
Naxos 8.660354 | 72'29"
Peter Maxwell Davies composed this chilling chamber opera for the Edinburgh Festival in 1980. The composer led this performance, with members of the BBC Philharmonic, for a release in 1994 on another label that is now out of print. For those of us who wanted to hear the opera, this Naxos re-release is the only option if you were not lucky enough to have caught one of the revivals here and there, most recently by Boston Lyric Opera in 2012. (One can also watch a performance given by the Psappha Ensemble in 2009: Part 1 and Part 2.) With the composer at the podium, the performance reflects his intentions, and the three singers are all fine, including Neil Mackie, who created the tenor role. The booklet libretto, riddled with errors, is the only drawback.

Maxwell Davies wrote his own libretto, creating a fictionalized version of the actual disappearance of three lighthouse guardians on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The events can easily be read as something from The X Files; in fact, they were the basis of an episode of Doctor Who, The Horror of Fang Rock, broadcast just a couple years before the creation of the opera. The prologue features the three singers as officers of the ship that discovered the empty lighthouse, interrogated at the court of enquiry by a solo horn (at times too like the "wah-wah" sound of the adult voices in a Peanuts cartoon). The model for this ghost story, one imagines, is Britten's The Turn of the Screw, and Maxwell Davies gets a similar range of horripilation-inducing sounds from his group of twelve instrumentalists, including a folksy banjo and, a tribute to Alban Berg, an out-of-tune upright piano.

In his booklet essay, Maxwell Davies invokes the cursed "Tower" card in the Tarot deck, and when the three keepers agree each to sing a song, the performances will determine, as Blazes puts it, who is King, Devil, and Fool. As Blazes and Sandy play a game of cards, the bass sings lines attributed to the "Voices of the Cards," the first sign of the incipient insanity about to grip the lighthouse keepers, who have been stranded at their post by storms long past when they should have been relieved. Some comic relief is provided by the songs offered by the trio, especially the sentimental love ballad sung by Sandy, the tenor, which the other two join, jumbling the words in hilarious ways ("Oh that you held me ... fast ... by the cock").

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