the beast unleashed

keith gallasch: sydney chamber opera, the lighthouse

Daniel Macey, Mitchell Riley, Alexander Knight, The Lighthouse, Sydney Chamber Opera

Daniel Macey, Mitchell Riley, Alexander Knight, The Lighthouse, Sydney Chamber Opera

Daniel Macey, Mitchell Riley, Alexander Knight, The Lighthouse, Sydney Chamber Opera

A HUGE, LOW, CIRCULAR PLATFORM DOMINATES THE PERFORMING SPACE. A THIN, LADDERED TOWER ON ITS EDGE RISES HIGH ABOVE. BEHIND, A SMALL ORCHESTRA FANS OUT. WITHIN THIS SPHERE THE TALE OF THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THREE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS BECOMES AURALLY AND VISUALLY VISCERAL, TESTING MORAL ABSOLUTES AND RAMPING UP FEARS OF THE SUPERNATURAL, ACTUAL OR PROJECTED.

This closed world is at first a court of inquiry where three nervous investigators are interrogated by a mute man atop the tower, ‘voiced’ by a French horn. Then it becomes the lighthouse interior where we witness the keepers’ fragile relationship rapidly splintering as they reveal beliefs, fears, obsessions and crimes. Composer Peter Maxwell Davies has the investigators, deeply disturbed by what they imagine has happened, double as the keepers. This mutability is substantially expanded by director Kip Williams’ and designer Michael Hankin’s production of The Lighthouse for Sydney Chamber Opera.

Enveloped in Nicholas Rayment’s evocative lighting, a 17-strong non-singing ‘chorus’ in long, sleek, black raincoats transmutes from a finely choreographed, swaying court of inquiry into rocks, scampering rats flooding the stage, selkies and worse, as fear morphs into hysteria with the raw brass cry of ‘the beast’ and red eyes looming through fog (a near over the top moment in this considered production). The overall direction and design is thoroughly consonant with Maxwell Davies’ richly dynamic score—brisk, agitated, suffused with moments of eerie beauty and the minglings of many musics—folkloric, sentimentally operatic and mockingly modernist, all of which grant the performers ample psychological and theatrical colour. But not ease—the vocal challenges are great, the singers having to command multiple styles, complex rhythmic and octave shifts while holding the line.

The performers, Daniel Macey, Mitchell Riley and Alexander Knight, make up a rather youthful trio of lighthouse keepers. It’s not uncommon in The Lighthouse to cast a range of ages, but here their collective youth, powerful singing and fine acting adds a certain fragility, heightening the sense of their fear of each other (they sing songs “lest we end up like beasts in a cage, eating each other”) and the unknown beyond their confines (“The only cure is to kill the beast!”).

Maxwell Davies’ music, conducted by Jack Symonds, proved wonderfully memorable, perhaps surprising some doubters in the audience, who came anyway to see this opera rarity. Melodies plain and distended, revealing parodies and rich orchestral textures—adorned with banjo, honky-tonky piano, fiddle, guitar and a wide spectrum of riveting percussion—made for a musically immersive experience enhanced by vigorous theatrical inventiveness.

Sydney Chamber Opera, The Lighthouse, composer Peter Maxwell Davies, conductor Jack Symonds, director Kip Williams, performers Daniel Macey, Mitchell Riley, Alexander Knight, designer Michael Hankin, lighting Nicholas Rayment; Carriageworks, Sydney, Nov 24, 26, 28

See interview with Sydney Chamber Opera directors Louis Garrick & Jack Symonds

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 40

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 February 2013