Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Davies' The Lighthouse from Opera Parallèle

The brilliant British composer Peter Maxwell Davies died two months ago at the age of 81, and in a bit of accidental synchronicity Opera Parallèle presented his best-known operatic work, The Lighthouse, earlier this month at the Z Space theater. Davies' prolific compositions were all over the map, from the easy listening of Farewell to Stromness and An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise to astringent, thorny works like the 1968 Eight Songs for a Mad King and the 1979 one-act opera The Lighthouse.

Nicole Paiement conducted the 13-person chamber orchestra in a magnificent performance where every instrumentalist was thoroughly exposed.

The three-man cast of (left to right) bass David Cushing, tenor Thomas Glenn, and baritone Robert Orth could not have been better, as they played both lighthouse keepers stuck on a Scottish island at the turn of the 19th/20th century in a storm while slowly going insane, along with the rescue team that faces a court of enquiry after they fail to rescue anyone.

The highlight of the opera were the three arias where each of the lighthouse keepers sing a song for the others in popular styles (folk song, love song, hymn) with disturbing lyrics. Robert Orth as Blazes starts it off with a comic, horrific tale of murdering a woman and kicking in her face while Thomas Glenn looks back at lost love with a dead friend of indeterminate gender.

David Cushing as a religious fanatic who sees "the beast" coming for them has an astonishingly beautiful, resonant bass voice that makes you want to swim in its richness of sound. Casting directors at San Francisco Opera, please take note. Cushing is incredible.

The staging by director Brian Staufenbiel was imaginative and pretty, but I think the piece might have been better served by stressing the total claustrophobia of both the court of enquiry and the stranded lighthouse. The musicians were a wonder and deserve recognition: Nicole Paiement conducting Stacey Pelinka on flute, Peter Josheff on clarinet, Susan Vollmer on French horn, Scott Macomber on trumpet, Thomas Hornig on trombone, William Winant and Ben Paysen on percussion, David Tannenbaum on guitar and banjo, Keisuke Nakagoshi on piano and keyboards, Dan Flanagan on violin, Ellen Ruth Rose on viola, Thalia Moore on cello, and Richard Worn on contrabass. It was quite a starry gathering of local musical talent.

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