Sydney Chamber Opera’s latest venture, a production of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ 1979 piece The Lighthouse, played to a packed Carriageworks theatre on Monday. In an era when the continued viability of classical music institutions is debated hotly, the fact that this new company can pull in the crowds for a challenging modernist work is cause for congratulation. True, their productions usually take place in relatively small spaces with limited seating (previous shows I attended have been at the Cell Block Theatre in Darlinghurst, and the Parade Theatres at NIDA), but this doesn’t take away from the significance of the achievement.
Founded in 2010 by two final-year university students with the purpose of staging 20th- and 21st-century repertoire, the SCO has established a reputation through a series of high-quality performances with innovative visual stagings. If the company is young, then so are the performers: as in previous productions, The Lighthouse showcased a variety of up-and-coming singers and instrumentalists. (Not incidentally, the audience was rather less “grey” than is often the case at classical music gigs, perhaps a sign that there is appetite among the younger demographic for alternatives to the standard fare. Concert promoters, take note.)
The circular stage had no pit, and so the instrumentalists were positioned at the back, with the conductor presumably projected for the cast to see. The intricacies of the score demanded virtuosity from the small group of the players, and on the whole the results were impressive. From the deliberately honky-tonk piano to the shrill notes of the clarinet in alt, all played with commitment. There were notable violin and viola solos at various points, managed expertly. Conductor Jack Symonds (co-founder and music director of the company) negotiated the frequent tempo changes and marshalled his band well.
The production was directed by Kip Williams, who had previously created a scenario for non-speaking actors which was grafted onto (or silently acted out during) Bach’s Cantata no. 82, “Ich habe genug”. Maxwell Davies only specifies three singing roles (tenor, baritone and bass), but these were supplemented by seventeen performers dressed in black, who took on a variety of roles. In the opening courtroom scene, one served as judge (gesturing as the menacing horn figure is heard), and the other sixteen (sic.) as jurors. However, as the officers’ narrative unfolded, they rocked back and forth like dangerously high waves, and later reshaped themselves to represent successively the tower, rocks, seals, and a variety of other creatures which the officers found on the island. The few props – a table, bench, chairs, high-chair – were constantly being recast and moved around: the table, for instance, became the boat, and subsequently was turned on its side as the door of the lighthouse. Not everything worked: the opera ends with a cutback to the beginning of the scene between the three lighthouse keepers, which was achieved by getting the actors to move as if a film were being rewound. Although an ingenious idea, in practice it looked rather ludicrous.
However, no matter how engaging the production, the singers were still the main focus of attention, and the three acquitted themselves splendidly. Alexander Knight (who played Arthur/Officer 3) was perhaps the most outstanding in terms of vocal quality and accuracy of pitching. Daniel Macey’s Officer 1/Sandy had a sweet tenor voice; he tired slightly towards the end of a most demanding sing, but marked. The role of Blazes/Officer 2 was played by Mitchell Riley, a company stalwart, and he captured well the bitterness and antagonism of the cabin-fevered Blazes. All three relished their more traditional numbers in “The Cry of the Beast” (the long section which follows the prologue).
It has long been noted that audiences who would be restive (to put it mildly) if required to sit through a concert of post-tonal music will happily consume it when it functions as underscore in a film. In a production such as this, with a constant stream of visual events to keep the audience distracted through the unbroken 80-minute duration, the acerbities of the score again seemed less apparent. For the purist, all this visual distraction might have been irritating, but to judge by the audience’s reception, the company seems to have hit a winning formula. When one recognises in addition the level of musical talent displayed, it is clear that Sydney Chamber Opera is now one of the most interesting operatic groups at work in the city.