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The Lighthouse

Paul Nolan

An exceptionally well directed and well-lit production of Peter Maxwell-Davies' chamber opera about the 1900 disappearance of three Scottish lighthouse keepers.
The Lighthouse
Missing person reports. Cold cases. Government investigations. Tales of isolated or lost workers losing their minds as they try to survive. It’s the stuff many prime time TV shows are made of. The Sydney Chamber Opera, with heightened dramatic skill, brings such elements to local audiences in its latest offering – the classic 1979 work, The Lighthouse, by Peter Maxwell-Davies.

The three solo vocalists who play ship officers discovering a deserted Scottish lighthouse then also portray, via flashback, the three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared. We struggle with them to disentangle the true scenario.

Maxwell-Davies’ expansive atonal score with diverse tone colours for vocalists and instruments is in the very expressive and controlled hands of conductor Jack Symonds. The composer’s angular atonality was ably delivered by tenor, baritone and bass-baritone.

The set is a raised sphere on the performance space floor. This is a production with intensity and impressive vocal diversity from Daniel Macey, Mitchell Riley and Alexander Knight. Communication is augmented by the Movement Ensemble, a skilfully menacing mute chorus.

This troupe of 17 figures surround the stage, assist with minimal props, morph into aspects of landscape and body-sculpt objects in the narrative. Their precise choreography and shape-shifting is a thrilling and enlightened piece of direction.

Vocal effects, especially well-handled slides by Mitchell Riley’s keeper Blazes, added to a masterful characterisation. Bass-baritone Alexander Knight’s singing of the ominously pious Arthur displays an extensive vocal and dramatic range. His falsetto en route to madness is chilling. Daniel Macey’s tenor floats evenly and beautifully through tricky terrain both in the score and the inner dialogues of both his roles.

The dark accent of the Movement Ensemble, swathed in waxy raincoats, illuminates things real and imaginary for the ship’s officers, the tortured keepers, and the audience. When the characters are at odds with their own differences and increasing hallucinations, the ensemble mercilessly prepares to engulf them.

An exceptionally well directed and well-lit production, this version of The Lighthouse lets us enjoy the focussed intimacy of the chamber opera genre. The Sydney Chamber Opera does justice to the craftsmanship behind Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ concept, and furnishes a chilling tale with fine musicianship and a riveting re-enactment of a true story. You will not be able to look away for an instant. Turn the TV off and get to Carriageworks.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Sydney Chamber Opera present
The Lighthouse
By Peter Maxwell-Davies
Conductor: Jack Symonds
Director: Kip Williams
Designer: Michael Hankin
Lighting Designer: Nicholas Rayment
Cast: Daniel Macey, Mitchell Riley, Alexander Knight and movement ensemble

Carriageworks, Eveleigh
24 – 28 November

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Paul Nolan is a classically trained pianist. He studied at UNSW and graduated with a Bachelor of Music.

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