About this Recording
8.660354 - MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Lighthouse (The) [Chamber Opera] (Neil Mackie, Keyte, Comboy, Members of BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies)

Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
The Lighthouse: A chamber opera in a prologue and one act. Music and Libretto by the composer


The Background

The original inspiration for this work came from reading Craig Mair’s book on the Stevenson family of Edinburgh. This family, apart from producing the famous author Robert Louis, produced several generations of lighthouse and harbour engineers. In December 1900, the lighthouse supply ship Hesperus, based in Stromness, Orkney, went on its routine tour of duty to the Flannan Isles lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was empty. All three beds and the table looked as if they had been left in a hurry and the lamp, though out, was in perfect working order. The men had disappeared into thin air.

There have been many speculations as to how and why the three keepers disappeared. My opera does not offer a solution to the mystery but indicates what might be possible under the tense circumstances of three men being marooned in a storm-bound lighthouse long after the time they expected to be relieved.

Prologue – Court of Enquiry

The Lighthouse consists of a prologue and one act. The Prologue presents the Court of Enquiry in Edinburgh investigating the disappearance of the three keepers. The three protagonists play the parts of the three officers of the lighthouse ship, the action moving between the courtroom, the ship, and the lighthouse itself. The enquiry is conducted by the horn of the orchestra (which, in some productions, sounds from among the audience), whose wordless questions the protagonists answer—making the questions clear in retrospect. Gradually they move from straight testimony into fantastical imaginings of evil during a ‘flashback’ to the lighthouse, but then we snap back to the courtroom. The Court reaches an open verdict. At the end of the Prologue the three officers tell us that the lighthouse is now automatic and the building abandoned and sealed up, while the lighthouse itself flashes its automatic signal to a rhythm which is reflected in the orchestra.

Act – The Cry of the Beast

The single act bears the subtitle The Cry of the Beast. The three singers from the Prologue become the vanished keepers. The scene is set inside the lighthouse with the three keepers at the table in a state of edginess with each other. Arthur is a bible-thumping religious zealot, constantly at loggerheads with Blazes who has no truck with his hypocrisy; the third keeper, Sandy, tries peace-keeping moves to keep them apart. When Arthur leaves the table and goes aloft to light the lantern, Sandy and Blazes have a game of crib. They quarrel over this, and when Arthur returns, the atmosphere becomes extremely tense. Sandy suggests that Blazes should sing a cheerful song to help break this tension. Blazes obliges, followed by Sandy and Arthur.

Each song, though light and superficial on the surface, might be taken as an indication of the inner character and history of the singers. Blazes sings a rough ballad, accompanied by violin and banjo, about an adolescent’s career of crime in city slums leading to murder and the death of his parents. Sandy sings a love song, with cello and out-of-tune piano, which when taken up and accompanied by the other two keepers, takes on a new meaning—suggesting that his love-life was not as innocent as it might have appeared. Arthur sings a holy-roller, rabble-rousing ditty, with brass and clarinet, about God’s revenge on the Children of Israel for worshipping the Golden Calf—projecting his own suppressed aggression into God’s will and biblical history.

The atmosphere turns chilly—fog swirls about the lighthouse and Arthur starts the foghorn with the words “the cry of the Beast across the sleeping world—one night that cry will be answered from the deep.”

From the mists, ghosts from the past of the three keepers emerge to take their revenge—ghosts that might be directly out of the songs each keeper sang if these were indeed personal revelations. These ghosts cannot be seen but Sandy and Blazes convince themselves that they are visible, driving themselves into a state of such guilty desperation that they become crazed. The ghosts call upon Blazes and Sandy to go out with them into the night.

When Arthur returns from the light room, he is convinced that the Beast has called across the sea—the Golden Calf has come to claim his servants. The eyes of the Beast are seen to approach, eventually becoming an all-blinding dazzle. Calling upon God’s help, bellowing a hymn, the three keepers move out to defend themselves against this spirit, which they now see as the Antichrist.

At the climax of the storm and the brightest point of the light from the eyes of the Beast, the keepers are replaced by the three officers from the lighthouse ship (played by the same three singers), and the light of the approaching Beast is seen to perhaps have been the light of the lighthouse ship.

From the remarks of the ship’s officers, the exact nature of the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance is open to interpretation. Indeed, are the officers themselves trying to deny some truth that they fear? Or are they trying to cover something up perhaps?

When the relief keepers enter the lighthouse, although they cannot be seen very clearly, it is more than possible that they are the same three we saw earlier in the act. As the lighthouse is seen to flash its ‘automatic’ signal, there is the further possibility that we have been watching a play of ghosts in a lighthouse abandoned and boarded up for eighty years.

Musical Structure – The Tower of Tarot

The structure is based on the Tower of Tarot, whose number symbolism is present in the structure of all the music, and which erupts into the surface of the opera in the form of the words sung by Arthur during the card game, representing the Voice of the Cards. On this level the game of crib is transformed into a play of fate with Tarot cards, summoning up all the power of their baleful influence.

Peter Maxwell Davies

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