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Chicago Opera Theater

March 21, 24, 25, and 30 and April 1, 4, and 7

Twenty-two years ago Peter Maxwell Davies first came to international prominence with his legendary Fires of London ensemble, created primarily to perform his own unusual vocal and chamber music. Those early pieces incorporated older musical forms--from late medieval to Renaissance music--into newer music, a pretty unusual idea at the time, since earlier repertoire was largely unknown and "early music" was not yet a buzzword.

By the early 70s, Maxwell Davies's music began to shift toward modern expressionism and dramaturgy, motivated in part by his move to the Scottish Orkney islands to get away from the noise and distractions of London. Soon after moving to his cliff-side house, Maxwell Davies finished a piece that he felt signaled this new direction. Immediately after, he had a rather unusual experience that he recently recounted to me. "The clouds come very low there, and I walked outside on one of those extraordinary winter afternoons where the sun disappears into the sea and there's a marvelous kind of green, luminous light everywhere. There were clouds drifting down from the hill over the house, and they were a bright orange color--with the extraordinary phenomenon of the sea closing in over the descending sun. One of these clouds just came across and enveloped me, and I was suddenly standing within this bright orange-yellow world inside there. This was quite extraordinarily dramatic, especially having just sat five minutes before finishing a piece which I thought was taking off in a radically new direction."

It was inevitable that Maxwell Davies would want to somehow evoke the awesome beauty of his new environment with his new style. Which is exactly what he has been trying to do ever since with several pieces about the customs and legends associated with the region, notably his recent An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, which he conducted here last season with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the auspices of Chamber Music Chicago. But in his chamber opera The Lighthouse, Maxwell Davies has tried to capture another aspect of northern Scotland.

The Lighthouse is based on an actual incident in 1900, when a passing ship noticed that the light was out in a lighthouse in the Flannan Isles. The lighthouse board that investigated found that though the door of the lighthouse was open, everything inside was in perfect order. But the three lighthouse keepers were missing. "Nobody ever really discovered what happened," says Maxwell Davies. "Something must have drawn them out of that lighthouse, made them open that door. And it seems that they were swept away by the storm. The inquiry in Edinburgh just gave an open verdict--and this set my imagination going."

The work is enormously clever about leaving open the question of whether or not the ghosts that appear and draw the three men out are real. Maxwell Davies sets up ambiguity in many of his works, notably his Eight Songs for a Mad King, which leaves the listener wondering whether the king is mad or whether a madman imagines himself to be the king. Yet everyone seems to come away from The Lighthouse with a definite answer as to what actually happened in the lighthouse.

Maxwell Davies draws upon the atmosphere of the region and the lore and superstitions of actual lighthouse keepers who remember waiting impatiently for a boat to bring them relief in the days before helicopters. "It has to do with being isolated for long periods of time in a place which by its very nature is going to confront you rather directly with nature--as well as yourself," says Maxwell Davies. "You're going to be reflected in all sorts of circumstances--quite involuntarily. And depending on your psychological makeup, this kind of manifestation could well take place. I know from people who have borrowed my house for a period of time to work there alone how fertile the isolated imagination can be. At first they say, 'Oh yes, it would be wonderful to have the isolation.' But one actually left after I was away in South America for six weeks, and claimed he was chased away by poltergeists. Another left in circumstances which have never become clear--the oil lamps were broken, so he must have had a real panic. He just left. I never got an explanation of that one, but something scared him. But there are no ghosts there--I certainly would know if there were. But circumstances where people are faced with that kind of isolation brings things out of themselves which perhaps they haven't faced before. It's as if you're looking in a mirror for an extended period of time, which is always very dangerous."

Although The Lighthouse had its Chicago premiere last week by Chicago Opera Theater, Maxwell Davies was not able to attend because he was in the midst of conducting a two-week festival of his music in London. I suspect if he had had even an inkling of the spectacular quality COT would bring to the work, he might well have been truant for at least part of the festival.

The Lighthouse is by far the most challenging score COT has presented to date. Though I knew whatever they did would be interesting, I was not prepared for the polish the company brought to such an enormously complicated work.

A large share of that credit must fall squarely on conductor Henry Holt, making his Chicago Opera Theater debut. Holt was able to form an extraordinary sense of order and structure within a score that could all too easily fall into chaotic mush. His tempi were brisk and convincing, and kept the action moving in the relentless yet never rushed manner the composer intended. Most remarkable was the way Holt kept his 12-piece chamber orchestra flawlessly together, moving in and out of the score's complex meter changes, while letting the music hang in space with a genuinely ethereal quality.

Much credit must also go to director William Woodman, former artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, also making his COT debut. Woodman made the most of a rather austere set borrowed from the San Diego Opera, and got the singers to interact in an immediate and physical manner rare in the opera house. Perhaps most ingenious--after the careful staging of the difficult climax--was the way the singers slowly entered and exited, one at a time, before and after the prologue, remaining motionless once they arrived onstage until the music actually began. This gave the audience the sense that the three characters were a permanent part of the scenery, a very nice touch. To add to this eerie frozen-in-time effect, the curtain never rose or fell, and conductor Holt stayed in the pit and never made the usual "maestro's entrance," which would obviously have upstaged that effect. Robert Christen's dramatic lighting design also did much to create the creepy and overbearing atmosphere.

There are only three singers in the opera--a tenor, baritone, and bass. They each sing the dual roles of the trio of officers investigating the abandoned lighthouse in the prologue and then the three isolated lighthouse keepers in their final hours together. Richard Fracker--last year's Albert Herring--sang the role of Sandy with his slight but effective tenor. His vocal highlight was his twisted love song accompanied by a deliberately out-of-tune piano. Baritone Nickolas Karousatos sang the role of Blazes with a slightly gruff and unfocused quality to his voice. Baritone Peter Loehle sang the bass role of Arthur, the Bible-thumping fundamentalist who preaches to his colleagues that God is keeping "the beast" from the door. He was the most memorable of the three, vocally and dramatically, though the bottom end of his range was somewhat tentative, not having the most solid projection or the darkest color. The three interacted in a very convincing manner, and the tension between them became almost unbearable. The audience, like the characters, was on edge waiting for resolution, whatever it might be. Each ensemble section was very well balanced, and every word of each singer was clearly understood, a tribute to the always diligent coaching of COT artistic director and founder Alan Stone.

The Lighthouse is not for everyone and may be far too complicated or disturbing for those whose idea of opera is lighthearted romance and mindless, silly plots as an excuse for beautiful singing. But for those who revel in gripping psychological drama and unusual plot twists as well as challenging contemporary scores this is ideal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.

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