Monday, June 8, 2020

Frustrating “Lighthouse” from Opera Parallèle

At the end of last week, Opera Parallèle (OP) announced that it had uploaded to YouTube a video document of its original production of “The Lighthouse,” a one-act opera with both music and libretto by Peter Maxwell Davies. The video was made on the opening night of the performance of this production, which took place at Z Space on April 29, 2016. Artistic Director Nicole Paiement conducted a chamber ensemble of twelve instrumentalists and the three vocalists on the stage, tenor Thomas Glenn, baritone Robert Orth, and bass David Cushing. Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel was responsible for both stage direction and set design.

Sadly, I was not able to attend this performance, having made a commitment to cover the New Frequencies Fest presented by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I had the good fortune to see Jack O’Brien’s staging for the San Diego Opera, which was presented at the Old Globe Theatre (in San Diego), where O’Brien was Artistic Director. That occasion was sufficient to establish the opera as a personal favorite. In addition, during my tenure with, I was able to write about the Naxos reissue of the Collins Classics recording of “The Lighthouse,” featuring Davies conducting members of the BBC Philharmonic.

The Wikipedia page for the opera provides a useful summary of the plot:
The scenario was inspired by a true story. In December 1900 a lighthouse supply ship called the Hesperus, based in Stromness, Orkney, went on its routine tour of duty to the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. 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, but the men had disappeared into thin air. The composer has taken liberties, and changed the name of the lighthouse to Fladda, this being not a usual name in the Western Isles of Scotland, to avoid offence or distress to any relatives of those concerned in the original incident.
The opera itself is structured in two parts. The Prologue is entitled “The Court of Enquiry.” It basically documents the testimony of three officers describing their discovery of a deserted lighthouse. This is followed by “The Cry of the Beast,” whose narrative reconstructs the events leading up to the conditions reported in the Prologue. The vocalists are the same for both parts of the opera.

Arthur (David Cushing, above), Sandy (Thomas Glenn, left), and Blazes (Robert Orth, right) faced by the four Fabric Dancers (photograph by Stefan Cohen, courtesy of Opera Parallèle)

The second part establishes the strong differences in personalities that cuts across the three keepers of the lighthouse. Davies captures these differences by giving each character a representative song. Blazes (the baritone) begins with what sounds like a jolly ballad until the listener realizes that he is singing about his having committed a murder for which his father was arrested and hanged. He is followed by Sandy (the tenor) singing the sort of love ballad that would not be out of place in a narrative by James Joyce. Finally, Arthur (the bass) sings a Salvation Army song about God’s wrath delivered to those that worshipped the Golden Calf. (This song includes the phrase “the cry of the beast.”) What happens next is deliberately left ambiguous in the libretto, although, since it is sung last, Arthur’s song carries a strong connotation of Divine vengeance.

Sadly, the OP video does little justice to this enigmatic narrative. Most importantly, while titles were projected of the English-language text at the performance, they were not provided in the video version. While all three of the vocalists commanded clear delivery of their parts, there is an overall density to Davies’ rhetoric (even with modest resources), which often leads to the instruments overpowering the vocalists. This makes titles necessary for everyone that has not memorized the libretto. Also, for the inquiry hearing, the horn is supposed to embody the questions being put to the three officers; and O’Brien made this clear by situating the horn player on audience side, having the answers put to the audience as the surrogate for the inquiry panel. In Staufenbiel’s staging, the relationship between question and answer is made clear only through the titles that allow the audience to realize that the vocal work consists of answers to questions, whose texts are never heard.

I was also put off by the way in which the staging tended to try to reduce the narrative to little more than a ghost story. To this end Staufenbiel recruited four “Fabric Dancers” (Stephen DiBiase, Quilet Rarang, Rachel Strickland, and Byron Heinrich), so called because all movements take place under vast swathes of billowing cloth. I would suggest that Davies’ intention was to allow the instruments to narrate the fate of the three lighthouse keepers. If that narration is ambiguous as an account of events, it is still rich in connotation, leaving the details to the imagination of every listener/viewer. Staufenbiel’s approach to staging tended to undermine the power of imagination, rather than encourage it.

The overall result is a disappointing interpretation that honors Davies’ approach to narration too little and, instead, overloads the viewer with content that distracts, rather than enlightens.

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