Half urban myth, half folklore, the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse-keepers from the Flannan Isles one night in 1900 has never been satisfactorily explained. Theories abound; questions linger. As a child, I became obsessed by this mystery one summer, poring over maps and photographs (in the days before the internet) with no more success than anyone else; the utter isolation of the lighthouse, and its crew, remained for me one of the most terrifying facets of the conundrum. Using a skeleton cast of just three male singers, doubling roles as Relief Officers and the ill-fated lighthouse keepers themselves, Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera offers us an unnerving solution: a toxic psychological cocktail of cabin fever, mental instability and mass hallucination which builds to a spine-tingling finale.

Samuel Sakker (First Officer) and Yuriy Yurchuk (Second Officer) © ROH | Clive Barda
Samuel Sakker (First Officer) and Yuriy Yurchuk (Second Officer)
© ROH | Clive Barda
Like Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, The Lighthouse is not exactly a cosy listen: but it is a brilliant one, if you just stay with it and allow its dissonant sound world to reign supreme. Maxwell Davies’ music conjures murky depths, misty booming, creaking timbers, the shrill of a sharp wind in the strings, the keening of seabirds from the flute, with grimly foreboding brays from the brass, all kept taut by atmospheric incursions from the percussion section. His vocal writing sets words with pearlescent clarity. The libretto itself is stunning: “The dawn was a bilge-grey smudge in the blackness... The sea, a dead expanse of lead; the dawn was a corpse-grey scowl... ” Maxwell Davies even stretches to some darkly funny musical jokes, as the lighthouse keepers descend into madness singing songs which are self-conscious parodies of music-hall, glutinous love ballad and religious zealot’s anthem respectively.

The Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Jonathan Santagada and playing in the presence of the composer, evoke all the moods of this demanding score; a couple of moments of muddled timing were soon resolved, and Max seemed rightly thrilled with them as he joined the final curtain call.  

Alyson Cummins’ design for the Linbury fits this piece perfectly: her two-tiered period timber structure feels marooned at the centre of an entirely dark stage, doubling as courtroom, boat, and lighthouse. Shadowy recesses at the lowest level give scope for dramatic disappearance and reappearance, as well as the swift costume changes which allow Officers to become lighthouse keepers (and vice versa). Scene changes are signified instantly by the singers’ physical interactions with their surroundings, rather than any alteration of the set, which ensures claustrophobia stalks each scene: whether on the mainland, at sea or on the island, these characters are all always in the same place: entirely alone with their decisions, their consciences, and each other. Interior scenes are lit with a soft glow, while sudden pillars of white spotlight signify the witness box from which the Officers deliver their testimony to the court. Warren Letton’s sensitive lighting gives us a sense of time passing, with harsher tones for outdoor scenes, light from different angles implying new days, and occasional stormy flashes of blinding light underlining the drama’s darker moments.

<i>The Lighthouse</i> at the Linbury Studio © ROH | Clive Barda
The Lighthouse at the Linbury Studio
© ROH | Clive Barda

Director Greg Eldridge has created a visceral, physically driven production which commands this space, with plenty of menacing body language and occasional horseplay which hovers intriguingly on the edge of torture. Eldridge keeps his singers on the move, and the production on the boil, all the time, and is rewarded with performances of chilling intensity from his principals, three members of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, each talented, exciting and unique in their voice and dramatic approach.  

British bass David Shipley impresses constantly as Arthur, a violently devout Christian whose Bible hides a pistol, as well as the calmer, more melancholy Third Officer. His voice already sounds rich, with a smooth strength right through his range, right up to a polished falsetto. Shipley’s bronze-edged tone couldn’t but remind me of Sir John Tomlinson: an additional hush of rapt attention seemed to fall over the audience whenever he sang. Intense and compelling throughout, his forensic intonation and superb control of gesture give Shipley magnetic stage presence.

Yuriy Yurchuk (Blazes), Samuel Sakker (Sandy) and David Shipley (Arthur) © ROH | Clive Barda
Yuriy Yurchuk (Blazes), Samuel Sakker (Sandy) and David Shipley (Arthur)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Australian tenor Samuel Sakker is appealing and exquisitely clear as Sandy and the anxious First officer. Sandy’s ironic love-ballad brewed up a positive storm of eroticism on stage, the other lighthouse keepers transfixed by his naughty photographs, each lost in a moment of profound sensuality which was exceptionally moving – and, moreover, fascinating. It is a refreshing treat to see male sexuality portrayed on stage as something other than aggressive and exploitative. 

Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk plays the bitter, childhood-scarred Blazes with malevolent intensity, while his Second Officer is nicely differentiated by a sense of civilised Victorian composure. His English does suffer at times, some Slavic consonants obscuring his words, but this doesn’t necessarily detract from his characterisation, while his leonine prowling of the stage adds menace.