BLO to shine a light on Maxwell Davies opera

February 6, 2012 at 11:37 pm

By Keith Powers

Peter Maxwell Davies' 'The Lighthouse" opens Wedneday night, presented by Boston Lyric Opera.

For Boston Lyric Opera’s music director David Angus, The Lighthouse “is one of those contemporary operas that really works.”

The atmospheric one-act chamber opera opens Wednesday evening at the John F. Kennedy Library at UMass/Boston, part of the BLO’s very successful annex program, now in its third season, that brings lesser known works to alternate venues around town.

No grand stage and no orchestra pit—and certainly no need for opera glasses—in this production. “It’s a great space,” Angus said on the phone in a break between rehearsals. “It’s a large conference room, with a floor to ceiling window looking out to the sea. You can see ships and lights in the distance, and while most of the opera is played out in front of the window, some of it runs right through the audience. It’s really a very clever use of the space, and perfect for this opera.”

Given the oceanside setting, Angus couldn’t be more right. The Lighthouse tells the story of three keepers who vanished in 1900 without a trace from a remote outpost in the Orkney Islands, where composer Peter Maxwell Davies lives. The root story is true, and still mysterious. A supply ship showed up at the lighthouse after months away, found the table set, with no sign of mischief, but no sign of its inhabitants either.

Davies incorporates some real-life court documents into his libretto for The Lighthouse, which premiered in 1970 and has seen repeated productions since, including a Boston version in 1983. “A lot of the libretto is taken verbatim from court records,” Angus says. “The judge can smell a rat, and he knows that something mysterious is going on. Davies never tries to solve the mystery.

“It’s a very powerful drama. Intense. He’s written it so expertly, really a very delicate handling of the music,” Angus says.

“Although all of the musicians came up to me and said, ‘This is unplayable, you know.’ It’s similar to one of those Britten orchestras, that makes a great sound. All the quieter instruments are given something to double on; the guitarist plays a bass drum, the viola has this flexitone thing shaking in each hand, the pianist plays a referee’s whistle, and the concertmaster plays a tam-tam as well. There’s only a dozen players, but at the climax they make an incredible great sound.”

Davies’ score is equally demanding on the singers, who also double their parts: they sing the parts of the vanished lighthouse keepers, as well as the ship crew who find them missing. Tenor John Bellemer and bass David Cushing return to the BLO stage, and baritone Christopher Burchett makes his company debut.

“Davies makes such extreme demands on the players and singers,” Angus says. “I’m stunned that they are doing it. He wrote it originally for some of the top players in London, and even back then it was stuff they could barely manage.

“If people come to hear Mozart, well, that’s not what they’re going to get. If that’s what you expect opera to sound like, this is not like that. But if this were a film score, you’d think it was completely appropriate. It’s demanding on all the players, but it really works onstage.”

The Lighthouse opens 8 p.m. Wednesday and repeats at 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday.; 617-542-6772.


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