Trills and Chills: Sydney Chamber Opera presents ‘The Lighthouse’

Mitchell Riley in 'The Lighthouse'


Sydney Chamber Opera (SCO) presents the modern classic The Lighthouse by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The one-act opera with libretto by the composer, is his second and centres around three lighthouse keepers and the true story of the mysterious desertion of the Flannan Isles lighthouse in 1900.

The opera opens with a prologue set in an Edinburgh courtroom, in which the officers who discovered the deserted lighthouse are cross-examined. The narrative moves to the three keepers, Blazes, Sandy and Arthur,  as they eat supper, play cards and sing songs that reveal their characters and their troubled backgrounds. The lighthouse becomes engulfed in fog as reality merges with past fears. An approaching ship becomes a devouring monster, and  the keepers are replaced by the three officers, who imply that they had to kill the hysterical men in a terrifying climax.

The prologue is book-ended with a coda in which the lighthouse now runs automatically, although the ghosts of the keepers are present, relentlessly reliving their final moments.

Directed by Kip Williams (Sydney Theatre Company’s Under Milk Wood and the 2013 Romeo & Juliet), with conductor Jack Symonds, baritone Daniel Macey, bass Mitchell Riley and baritone Alexander Knight are joined by a movement ensemble and 12-piece chamber orchestra featuring honky-tonk and banjo, to perform music described The Guardian as being of “abundant atmosphere and menacing momentum.” Michael Hankin has designed the sets and costumes with Nicholas Rayment  in charge of lighting design.

The SCO’s production promises chilling music and a focus on psychological drama of the uneasy relationship between the three men. The interlocking choreography of the movement ensemble evokes the turmoil of the sea.

Like his compatriots Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Benjamin Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies (b 1934) musical language expressed the sweeping sea and landscapes of Britain. He was especially influenced by the traditions around Orkney, where he settled in 1971. Peter Maxwell Davies taught at the University of Adelaide in 1966. He was knighted in 1987 and appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 2004.

Tickets $60 / $30 from Ticketmaster.

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