Sunday, February 12, 2012

Boston Lyric Opera lights up The Lighthouse

Alone in The Lighthouse - photos: Erik Jacobs
Opera is meant to be a synthesis of every art form, but most opera lovers care about one thing and one thing only: the star voices at the center of the whole shebang.  I've had more people than I can count swoon over the evocative power of a particular larynx, but then stare at me in incomprehension when I offered my thoughts on the production in which that larynx was embedded.

Which isn't to say that Boston Lyric Opera's current production of Peter Maxwell Davies' celebrated The Lighthouse (today is the last performance, so hurry) doesn't offer some fabulous singing; it does (although nobody in the show is yet a star).  No, what instead distinguishes this version is its conception, its physical production, its landscape, if you will - for as part of its new "Annex" program, BLO has set up digs in a conference room at the JFK Library, out on the rocks of Columbia Point, before a giant window with a sweeping view of the harbor.

So yes, BLO has literally put us in a lighthouse for The Lighthouse.

I suppose on paper that sounds crushingly literal, but in performance the effects this inspired setting allows the BLO production team are nothing short of astounding.  Before this vast view, director/designer Tim Albery and set designer Camellia Koo have built the skeleton of the title sentinel - which appropriately enough recalls a scaffold, and which is "haunted" by the reflections the players cast in the glass behind it.  What's more, they've built up their own evocation of the rock on which the light is planted, as well as the mizzenmasts of the ships that visit the forlorn outpost of Davies' scenario.  There's even a searchlight rotating outside the hall, which conjures a moment of musical (and dramatic) "time travel" that's pure genius. To be blunt, this isn't a "set," it's a geography as well as a state of mind.

But then if you know something of that previously mentioned scenario, you may already have some idea of just what a conceptual bull's-eye all this represents.  Davies based his best-known opera on a famous incident recorded in 1900, in which a ship discovered the lighthouse on Eilean Mor in the Outer Hebrides (below) had been abandoned, and seemingly in a hurry - beds were still unmade, and there were dishes on the table.  But where its three keepers had gone - indeed, how they had gotten off their remote island - has remained a mystery ever since.

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor endures, as does its mystery.

Now this is agreeably spooky stuff, but Davies is after far more in The Lighthouse than some operatic Twilight Zone episode. He both imagines a plausible explanation for the disappearance of the keepers, and at the same time conjures a powerful statement about the entwined nature of paranoia and hostility - and how we humans try to stave off, through art and artifice, "the beast" that lurks within us.

For in his frame story - the questioning of the three sailors who discovered the empty light - Davies has settled on a dissonant chromaticism somewhat in the mode of late Britten, only without the dreamy, glittering eroticism; the score is not actually "atonal" (as many in the audience I saw the show with seemed to think; why do people always imagine challenging music is atonal??), but it's unsettling and unstable; its tonal center moves around - something frightening always seems to be looming out of it, before disintegrating.  In short, it's paranoia in musical terms.

This metaphor is clever enough, but director Albery embeds it in another brilliant stoke of staging: his three sailors -  tenor John Bellemer, baritone Christopher Burchett, and bass-baritone David Cushing - are "interrogated" by a mournfully officious horn at the back of the house; under its cross-examination, they re-live their terrible discovery, entering via three separate sailing rigs before creeping up a dark "path" toward the lighthouse itself.  Once their tale has been related, however, it's barely probed; the investigation abruptly closes down with a verdict of "death by misadventure" for the lighthouse's vanished occupants.

But then Davies turns back the clock - as the lighthouse's "robot lantern" silently rotates, its ghosts all "shut tight inside" its tower; his three rescuers are transformed into the doomed trio themselves; and we discover exactly what happened on the fateful night of their disappearance.  Here Davies turns to another wily compositional technique - as the men of the lighthouse battle off madness, they sing one form of sentimental (completely tonal) music after another; but their songs all disguise sinister undertones, and the piano accompanying them is (intentionally) out of tune; Davies is parodying their taste, as well as pitying it.  He knows that the dissonance of "the Beast," as one of the men puts it, can't be denied in the stifling isolation of their prison.

The Beast attacks its keepers.
But it's here, I'm afraid, that BLO falters - not musically, but dramatically.  Albery's cast, at least on the night I attended, were all convincingly stolid as the first trio of sailors, but they couldn't quite pull off the psychological breakdown that the second trio must undergo in the final scene.  Bass David Cushing in particular sounded wonderful, but acted too woodenly, particularly at the moment of his crack-up, when alone up in the tower, "the Beast" at last takes over.  The singers' renditions of their respective favorite tunes, however, were quite amusing, and often suitably desperate, with Christopher Burchett and John Bellemer getting close to the right kind of rising hysteria.

Ironically enough, this dreadful climax was the only memorable moment from the 1983 Peter Sellars production, which I caught years ago at the Boston Shakespeare Company (which Sellars was then in the process of wrecking).  Sellars relied on a rather cheap trick to help along the transition - as his characters sang of "the Beast," one of them revealed that his hands had been transformed to claws; talk about The Twilight Zone!  Still, like a lot of cheap effects, the trick was pretty damn effective.

In every other way, however, this is by far the superior production, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit it often gave me chills - and that in its conception and design it seemed to almost perfectly channel Davies' intents.  Be warned, of course, that the conference room setting has a few acoustical issues; some things seem to carry extremely well - too well, perhaps - others not so much.  Conductor David Angus has ameliorated much of this through subtle "voicing" of the orchestra (the players all turn in highly committed performances, by the way), but I admit there are still a few gaps.  But then again, if you're going to take opera out of the concert hall, do you really have a right to be surprised if you have - well, taken opera out of the concert hall?  I don't think so.  In its "Annex" productions, Boston Lyric Opera has been rolling the dice on big gambles - and the previous two, The Turn of the Screw and The Emperor of Atlantis, have both been triumphs.  We can add The Lighthouse to that distinguished list, I think; it sets a standard for opera in found spaces that I believe few other local productions will ever match.  To give you some idea of the intellectual depth of its design - when I looked more closely at the "path" leading up to the lighthouse/scaffold, I realized it was made of heaps and heaps of sailor's coats.  This story, the designers were telling us, had happened before; indeed, it had happened over and over again; the "island" itself was built of the remains of similar deaths.

And it was then that I thought to myself - you know, in the old days, BLO was the big, soft-headed suburban opera company; but all that has completely changed.  Honestly, these Annex productions are the smartest opera that Boston has ever seen . . .


  1. It was fantastic. Unfortunately, I used the T. I did arrive at quarter of five at JFK/UMASS stop. However the first shuttle driver pulling in was on his last trip and while he would have taken us (myself and 2 UMASS students, he was informed that the second shuttle (parked away from the shuttle stop) was taking passengers. By 5:10, the students gave up and started walking. Not a sign of a taxi. Only because I finally walked up to the shuttle to ask what time the driver was leaving, did I find that this driver was scheduled to start driving at 5:45. Thankfully he was willing to drive me to the library. I got in around the "lighthouse is dead" Glad I got to see as much of the production and the late matinee time was effective as the daylight got dark along the mood of the production.(only fog or a "dark and stormy night" could have added to the effect of the opera) I should have given myself an extra hour head start. Would have seen the beginning. Sigh.

  2. I hear you. I was in much the same predicament. BLO should have had vans running back and forth to the venue; with twenty minutes between departures, the regular shuttles were simply spaced too far apart. I made it with seconds to spare.

  3. Well, the work computer thwarted my first attempt, but I want to thank you. Your review filled in some of the details that I missed out on. There were no commerical recordings of this opera in my library network, however, there was a liberetto, so I did read the prologue. This was a logical and effective setting for this particular opera. Still I am hoping that the next location that Opera Annex uses will be more accessible by public transportation. For all I know, BLO may be planning to use Hammond Castle in Gloucester to stage Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle" for 2013.