Review: English Touring Opera, The Lighthouse, Snape, November 9

English Touring Opera, The Lighthouse, Snape, November 9

In December 1900 the crew of a lighthouse supply ship reached Flannan Isle in the Outer Hebrides. They found no trace of the three keepers and no signs of an accident or disturbance – the men had simply vanished. The event was recreated in W W Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle and in 1979 formed the basis for Peter Maxwell Davies’s opera The Lighthouse.

The opera begins, like Peter Grimes, at an inquest to investigate the circumstances of a tragedy. The three characters answer questions and give their accounts of the chilling discovery. In the second half they become the lighthouse keepers themselves, tiring of the limited company and facing increasingly insistent demons from their earlier lives.

Richard Mosley-Evans exuded the air of an ‘old salt’, his burly and intimidating presence a constant menace. He captured the certainties of the religious zealot with aplomb and his powerful baritone was clearly audible. Nicholas Merryweather skilfully absorbed the violence and larceny in the background of Blazes and gave a touching portrait of a damaged, vulnerable man. Vocally, he too was impeccable. Sandy, a nervy, sexual misfit was splendidly played by Adam Tunnicliffe and his song was quite mesmerising.

Davies’s skill at creating music to match the story and with the small resources of a chamber orchestra is no less remarkable than Britten’s in The Turn of the Screw, for example. Particularly striking were the use of percussion and banjo and the Aurora Orchestra under the clear direction of Richard Baker created just the right musical atmosphere. The set design was effective and practical but could have done with a little more light in the second half. Director Ted Huffman got just about everything right, particularly the way the personal collapses contributed towards the final tragedy. The whole performance was so coherent and gripping that one wondered whether an interval was really justified. Irrespective of this, ETO delivered an evening of riveting drama.

Gareth Jones

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