Peter Maxwell Davies's opera, 'Lighthouse,' beams in US debut

Peter Maxwell Davies has long had something of an artistic second home in Boston. The Boston Symphony commissioned his Second Symphony. Local performance groups have presented striking performances of many of his music theater pieces - ''Miss Donnithorne's Maggot'' and ''Eight Songs for a Mad King'' come instantly to mind. The caliber of free-lance Boston musicians is high enough to meet Davies' astounding technical demands.

Thus it was no surprise when it was announced that Boston would be the site for the US premiere of the composer's one-act chamber opera, ''The Lighthouse,'' first heard in Edinburgh in 1980. Peter Sellars was early announced as director, but the venue eventually changed when he was appointed director of the Boston Shakespeare Company. Clearly, Sellars has no mere Bardian aspirations for the company: Where else can one see a staged performance of Schubert's song cycle ''Die Winterreise,'' for instance?

Davies's piece was inspired by an anecdote he once read about a lighthouse found deserted with dinner still on the table. His own libretto treats the story as high mystery and psychological thriller. It begins at the inquest of the crew of the ship that discovered the deserted beacon tower. Then it slips in and out of various locales - the lighthouse, on board ship, back to the the courtroom.

Davies's tale deals with loneliness and struggle with the very primitive fundaments of human nature, exemplified in The Beast. The three keepers have beastly skeletons in their fear-ridden closets. On a particularly stormy, foggy, desolate night, The Beast overtakes them and destroys them. The searchlights of the relief ship they take for The Beast's eyes;they attack the crew, which in turn kills the keepers in self-defense. Thus are new beastly skeletons created. The lighthouse is converted into an automatic light, and inside are trapped forever the ghosts of the last, ill-fated trio of keepers. These eerie shades close the opera.

Davies's musical idiom is ideally suited to themes of desolation and lunacy. His theatrical instincts are superb. He knows how to build a scene textually and musically, how to let a sequence go on with deceptive simplicity, even a certain calculated stasis, and then whack the audience with a brilliant coup de theatre. One could describe the music as atonal, but that hardly does it justice. Hymnlike tunes, folk melodies, and other deceptively accessible music is woven into the score to add to the dramatic impact. The climax of the work - The Beast overtaking the keepers - is one of the profoundly terrifying moments in operatic literature.

Mr. Sellars places the orchestra on stage as the main protagonist. One is never allowed to forget that the music is supplying the primary imagery and mood of the evening's 70-odd minutes. Down in front of the orchestra are three shallow boxes, each filled with water and a chair. When the three singers - Sanford Sylvan, Michael Brown, and Kenneth Bell - are shipmates, they are near those chairs. Seated, they are in the courtroom, standing on the chairs, they are aboard ship.

Above each is a video monitor that usually shows a hand on a chair arm, or scratching the seat or back agitatedly - an image of the anxious mental atmosphere that permeates the opera.

The lighthouse room is above the orchestra, and on that claustrophobic little set the major drama unfolds, at first leisurely, then wrenchingly. A few of the mechanics of getting the singers from one spot to the next stop the action unduly. But Sellars gets his singers to strike poses and use hands to push the shattering mood to electrifying heights.

The three singers perform impressively. But it is the orchestra, under David Hoose, that is surely extraordinary. They play Davies as if they had lived with the idiom as long as his own Fires of London group actually has.

''The Lighthouse'' runs in Boston through Dec. 4

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