Peter Maxwell Davies rocks the boat with his operatic thriller about the suspicious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers.

Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera, based on the murky fate of three lighthouse keepers who vanished from the Flannan Isles off Scotland circa 1900, opens at the inquest into the men’s disappearance.

As the three ship’s officers who first sounded the alarm tell their stories, slowly more and more inconsistencies come to the fore. In the longer final act of Sydney Chamber Opera’s atmospheric production, we see what might have happened to the lighthouse keepers: the relief ship is overdue, the fog is rolling in and tensions are rising. While the uneasy trio try to keep fear at bay by singing songs to one another, what follows is a chilling exploration of hysteria and paranoia.

Fittingly for a dynamic young opera company, three talented young singers were cast in the roles. Daniel Macey’s lush, high baritone was a revelation in the role of Sandy. His achingly beautiful song of love and loss was just one of many highlights. Alexander Knight’s robust bass voice perfectly characterised Arthur, the religious fanatic, most effectively in his sermon-like delivery.

Baritone Mitchell Riley’s portrayal of the no-nonsense Blazes completed the trio. As in previous productions, he impressed with remarkably quick changes in register between falsetto and low baritone, maintaining a beautiful tone throughout even as the sinister edge of the character bled through. All three sang Peter Maxwell Davies’ extreme vocal lines with thrilling intensity even while negotiating the production’s tough physical demands.

Using an orchestra of only 12 players, Maxwell Davies’ score casts a foreboding shadow, echoing the claustrophobic feel of the composer’s own libretto. Even with such dark, heavy undertones, the music is remarkably diverse, ranging from popular song to gamelan to jagged, modernist lines in the vein of Berg and Britten. SCO’s musicians were exemplary under the sensitive direction of conductor Jack Symonds, who skilfully judged and paced the intensity of the piece.

A movement ensemble of 17 (silent) actors augmented the superb performances of the three lead singers, from rats and flashback-style visions to the lighthouse itself. It was a striking coup de théâtre and a creative solution to introduce colour and sweeping dramatic gestures in what might have become a visually monotonous, stilted production. Firebrand director Kip Williams set out every twist of the story clearly without ever being predictable. Around the simple grey round stage, the actors used their bodies to create some stunning images. It was refreshing to see a small-scale, shoestring opera production in Sydney with such a sophisticated sense of suspense and theatricality, achieved with the most direct and effective means.

Sydney Chamber Opera has been staking their claim as a young company to be reckoned with. Judging by this production, they have set the benchmark high.

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