in: Reviews

February 9, 2012

BLO’s Lighthouse Lulls and Bewitches


Christopher Burchett, Officer 2/Blazes; David Cushing, Officer 3/Arthur/Voice of the Cards; and John Bellemer, Officer 1/Sandy (Erik Jacobs photo)

A chamber opera, The Lighthouse, by no twist of fate, appeared at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on Columbia Point, the pairing, a brainchild of The Boston Lyric Opera. The high-ceilinged room of the Steven Smith Center and its dramatic panoramic glass wall looking out beyond Boston Harbor to the city’s skyline provided a fitting backdrop. Anointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 2004, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who wrote both music and libretto, has often looked to light and sea for ideas. The stage direction, lighting, and costume design of Tim Albery, Thomas C. Hase, and Camellia Koo, respectively, spelled clear and present danger. Too often the BLO orchestra under David Angus almost vanished from earshot.

I was happy to have been seated near the side toward the back. My seat probably was in the sweet spot for the production but a good way from the orchestra. Early on, action spilled over into the audience area, a rocky pathway to the lighthouse cutting across it. Surrounding the opera-goers was a triangle of the ship’s three posts, one each to our left, right, and rear. Another spatial effect was John Boden’s startling, menacing French horn — suggestive of a foghorn and representing the voice posing the questions in court. Heads shifted, craning to catch any and all allurements of the sparse yet winning multi-directional staging.

The disappearance of three lighthouse-keepers was the subject of the one-hour-and-15-minute production (with no intermission). John Bellemer, Christopher Burchett, and David Cushing doubling as the investigating officers and lighthouse-keepers lulled and bewitched. The Lighthouse prologue tells of the three court officers heading from court to the island to determine what had happened to the three men. Tenor Bellemer drifted often enough from a prevailing uniform narrative among the three officers to inject emotion. Most of the prologue, though, seemed intentionally held back.

Christopher Burchett, David Cushing, and John Bellemer, (Erik Jacobs photo)

Anything close to real intensity came at the end of the prologue, when a small rotating white light began flashing larger, brighter, blinding beams, the trio of officials repeating, “The lighthouse is now abandoned, its ghosts are shut in sealed tight. The lighthouse is dead except for its robot lantern.” For one, as I said above, my seat was quite a distance from the chamber orchestra, which is one reason for its missing presence, especially when supporting or accompanying singing (overly cautious about covering up the singers?). Certainly the room was not favorable to carrying quieter tones.

Diction was virtually impeccable, thus deserving of a single line of praise!

In the following and only act, “The Cry of the Beast,” each of the three lighthouse keepers sings a song where a preponderance of Post-Schoenberg chromaticism in Davies’s 1979 score gives way to vernacular tonalism. Baritone Burchett, in “Blaze’s Song” set to banjo strumming, delighted with his high-spirited intoxication and repartee while recounting malicious deeds against his upstairs neighbor. Tittering escaped from a nearly full house.

Accompanied by an out-of-tune upright, Tenor Bellemer in “Sandy’s Song” inflected a style, suggestive perhaps of the Flannen Isles (outer Hebrides of Scotland where the lighthouse was situated). “Oh, my love I dream of you” from Bellemer soared, maximizing his spectra-sounding character. Following Sandy’s song, bass-baritone David Cushing adroitly delivered one of the best lines of the show eliciting a sympathetic laugh: “I don’t know what your song means, but I disapprove.” Cushing’s hymn-type of delivery of “Arthur’s Song” reveled in father-like resonances, rich, deep, yet crystal clear.

I heard the Flexitone but once throughout the instrumental performance, and there was much more that either I missed or could barely make out — never mind experience as drama. Feeling much of the time seemed remote. To a large degree, such dryness prevented preparation or build-up; and the overly loud orchestral crashes toward the end of the opera did not feel climactic, though the theatrical shaping of the whole did succeed.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


  1. First a small correction(?): my understanding of the prologue was that the three officers were not officers of the court of inquiry, but the officers of the supply ship which went to the lighthouse, and their words are excerpts of their testimony to the court (until the end of the prologue, when they become narrators).

    I had no idea how it was supposed to sound, but from where I sat on Thursday evening, near the back on the orchestra’s side, I never had the feeling that I was missing the orchestral part. I don’t know what a flexatone is, much less what it sounds like, so I have no idea whether I failed to hear it.

    I thought the songs Davies composed for the keepers were wonderful, conveying the differing characters of the three keepers, as well as sounding authentic for the period of the action.

    Among the singers David Cushing impressed me most, with his rich voice.

    The drama was intriguing, and I regret that I won’t be able to hear and see this production again. If any readers have a chance to go to one or both of the remaining performances, I heartily recommend it. It’s a gem of an opera, well performed and staged, IMO.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 10, 2012 at 12:41 am

  2. I am so excited by the flexatone that I think I shall give up the harpsichord!

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — February 10, 2012 at 7:49 am

  3. I was sitting toward house left rather in the back but heard everything clearly.  I found the opera and the production that supported it admirably to be absolutely riveting.  I would love to have more of Davies’ operatic output seen and heard here.  His Kommilitonen! was done at Julliard in the late fall and got superb reviews.  It’s probably the kind of work the deeply lamented Opera Boston would have done, but perhaps BLO will be encouraged by its success with The Lighthouse and will consider presenting the longer work during one of its regular seasons.

    Comment by Will — February 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm

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