(Photo: Birgit Gufler)
In December 1900 the HMS Hesperus weighed anchor close to a group of small rocky outcrops known as the Flannan Islands, situated in the Outer Hebrides. It was reacting to a report from a passing ship that the island’s lighthouse was not shining its light. Receiving no signal from the lighthouse, the captain of the Hesperus sent a launch to the island to check on the safety of the three men who were stationed there.
What they found there remains a mystery to this day.
The gate and the front door to the lighthouse were closed when they arrived. Inside, the beds were unmade, the clock had stopped and there was no sign of the three men. Strangely, one set of oil skins was still hanging on the wall, meaning one of the men must have gone outside without suitable clothing, begging the question, why had all three left the lighthouse? The rules required that at least one person always remains inside the building. The logbook entries in the days leading up to the disappearance describe heavy storms and suggestions the men were in poor spirits. But no hint remained of what had happened to them. No bodies were ever found.
Since then speculation has run amok with theories of what might have happened to the men, ranging from being swept over the cliffs by a huge wave to abduction by aliens. In 1980, the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies added his own take on what might have happened in his chamber opera, “The Lighthouse,” for which he also wrote the libretto.
A Thrilling Work
The work is a psychological thriller in which memories of the lighthouse keepers’ pasts, precipitated by the claustrophobic environment and the loneliness of the rock, come back to haunt them with devastating consequences. How the three men die, however, remains open; that is left for the listener, the audience, and the director to decide upon.
Kai Anne Schumacher, the director for Innsbruck’s Tiroler Landestheater production, produced an imaginative reading which explored the depths of the keepers’ psychology and the fractious and deteriorating relationship which develops between them. She then partially answers the question of what happened to them by having one of the men, in a deranged state, killing his two companions, before committing suicide. She does not, however, completely clear up the ambiguity, nor was it her apparent intention to do so, rather she added to it. She introduced three semi crow-like entities who haunt the lighthouse and weave themselves into the narrative, yet always remain unseen by the other characters. They cast a heavy and malevolent atmosphere over the lighthouse, but the question as to whether they were malign spirits dictating events, or simply projections of the men’s own demons is left hanging. Certainly, the murder of Sandy and Blazes by Arthur appears to be the inevitable and believable outcome of their relationship, yet in the final scene, the crow-like figures are seen in the lighthouse after everyone has left. Either way, their addition added to the interest and complexity of the narrative, forcing the audience to draw its own conclusions.
The work is in two parts, and its narrative has a circular construction so that Part One opens with the three sailors who discovered the deserted lighthouse giving evidence to an Edinburgh court, which is presented as a series of flashbacks. Part Two relates the events leading up to the men’s disappearance and the sailor’s arrival at the lighthouse, thereby bringing the story back to the beginning.
The staging by scenographer Michael D. Zimmermann was hugely successful in linking the courtroom scenes and the flashbacks of the first part with the lighthouse in the second; the set changes causing minimal disruption. Moreover, aided by the excellent lighting designs of David Seebacher, his staging managed to evoke the dark malevolent and heavy atmosphere which hangs over the narrative, with mists constantly swirling around the stage. The design of the lighthouse interior allowed for movement between levels, and the use of bright sharply focused lights created a strong contrast to the surrounding eerie blackness.
Zimmermann also designed the period costumes. The three sailors were dressed as officers, the three keepers were dressed as casual non-uniformed sailors, while the three crow-like figures had evil-looking birds’ heads with yellow eyes and long red beaks, dressed in officer uniforms.
Solid Musical Performance
Musically, the sound-world created by Davies for the work is often disjointed and fragmented with its aggressive brass and rattling percussion never allowing the listener to settle, but which successfully paints a picture of the damaged psychologies of the keepers. At other times, the music is softer, but not becalming; on the contrary, it has an ominous and oppressive ambiance, the occasional injections of a rude instrument adding to the atmosphere of insecurity and fear. At the center of the score are three songs, one for each keeper, allowing the audience an insight into their pasts and characters. In each case, the music is scored perfectly to reflect their background and personality. Blazes sings a rough folk ballad for violin and banjo about an adolescent’s love for violence, his life of thieving and murder and the betrayal of his parents. Sandy sings a love song to an out-of-tune piano and cello, but there is a suggestion he is hiding something, maybe incest? Arthur’s song, which sounded as if it could have been written for a North England colliery band, is about God’s revenge on the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf, exposing his love of a vengeful rather than a forgiving god.
The Tiroler Ensemble Für Neue Musik under the direction of Tommaso Turchetta gave a splendid account that captured the oppressive ambiance enveloping the narrative, as well as its changing dramatic subtleties, while also successfully helping shape the psychological portraits of the characters.
A Solid Supporting Cast
Although there are six singing roles, each singer is double parted as a keeper and as one of the Officers sent to investigate.
In the role of Blazes and Officer 2 was the tenor Dale Albright. Initially, he sounded a little insecure as Officer 2, the vocal line wavering under the pressure he applied. Fortunately, it proved to be a temporary problem and he went on to produce a highly detailed and expressive portrait of Blazes as an unsavory, untrustworthy, vicious character. His emotional accenting, dynamic range, and his stretching of the voice to characterize the vocal line was compelling. His song “When I was a kid our street had a gang,” like many a folk song is a catchy number, but tells a dark story, which he played for all it was worth, producing an engaging rendition.
The tenor Florian Stern was cast as Sandy and Officer 1 and made an excellent impression. At first, he appeared more easy-going than the others, but as his demons took control, his paranoia and unsettled personality emerged. Towards the end of Part Two the keepers imagine that there are unknown entities at the lighthouse door trying to get in, and Sandy, in particular, is upset and mentally unravels. Stern’s portrayal was excellent, his development of the character truly convinced, as he gave voice to his visions and mental instability.
Arthur and Officer 3 was essayed by Johannes Maria Wimmer. He gave a strong, well-sung portrayal of both characters. He captured Arthur’s religious mania, his intolerance and paranoia convincingly, along with his repressed violent nature which became increasingly dangerous by the minute as he rapidly descended into madness. He possesses a warm, engaging bass and sang strongly. His song “This be thy God, oh Israel” was given an easy lyrical rendition, which contrasted well with the anger which he was to subsequently unleash.
It was a strong production, both from a musical and staging perspective, helped in no small measure by the modern venue, Innsbruck Haus Der Musik’s theatre, which is perfect for small-scale productions of this nature. The compact space intensified the drama and brought out the claustrophobia and paranoia which define the work. It was a highly enjoyable performance, and once again begs the question as to why so many opera companies are reticent about staging contemporary opera. Certainly, the usual response that new works do not attract audiences just does not wash: this performance, like so many others, was sold out.