Susan Wheeler – Lauren Joyanne Morris
Ella Foley – Beth Moxon
Stephen Foley – Thomas Erlank
Ben Pascoe – Theodor Platt
Sandy, Officer 1 – Richard Pinkstone
Blazes, Officer 2 – James Atkinson
Arthur, Voices of the Cards, Officer 3 – Timothy Edlin
Stephen Unwin (director)
Hannah Wolfe (designs)
Ralph Stokeld (lighting)
Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)
It was, on paper and not only on paper, an excellent idea to pair Huw Watkins’s 2012 chamber opera, In the Locked Room, with Peter Maxwell Davies’s classic drama, The Lighthouse. In both works, it is – or should be – far from clear where the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘imagination’ might lie, indeed whether such boundaries might justly be said to exist or at least to have meaning. Where does delusion take over? Are we deluding ourselves to think that it has not been in the ascendant all along? Is there any scope, as Hans Sachs might advise us, to manipulate the dark forces of Schopenhauerian Wahn? In many respects, this Royal College of Music double-bill worked well; I was certainly left thinking about what the works had in common and what they did not. I am not entirely convinced, though, that Stephen Unwin’s staging of the former and indeed David Harsent’s libretto always made as strong a case as they might have done.
Two friends who had known Thomas Hardy’s original short story beforehand felt more dissatisfied than I did. Whether I should have felt differently had I too known the ‘original’, I am not sure. I am, to quote an accessory to war crimes, ‘intensely relaxed’ about adaptations taking on whatever new form is wished, so long as it works on its own terms. Nevertheless, from having read the story since, I could not help but think that something had been lost in ambiguity, whether by Harsent, Unwin, or, I suspect, by both. The updating works well. A joyless marriage, kept in place by banker, Stephen Foley’s money and, doubtless, by inertia, even by social pressure, comes across well. In a programme note, Unwin speaks of ‘the lonely yearnings of the housekeeper, Susan’; I found her somewhat under-written, though, and indeed had thought her a mysteriously reappearing estate agent. (My fault in the latter case, no doubt.)
What I missed, and what is perhaps only really suggested by Watkins’s score, is a suggestion that the poet-lodger, Ben Pascoe, for whom Ella falls might or might not be in her imagination; realism ruled too strongly on stage. (Hardy called his tale The Imaginative Woman, which, sexism aside, surely points to a more interesting reading.) There is a splendid addition to that in Stephen’s talk about derivatives: surely the most lethal imaginary world of our time. That perhaps made him the most interesting character, especially when played with so strong a combination of toxic masculinity (Hannah Wolfe’s designs surely helped too) and implicit, yet only implicit, doubt as by Thomas Erlank. Otherwise, however, it is in the ghostly musical imaginings that seem to take their linguistic leave as much from the later world of Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice as from the more obvious Britten opera, that that realm seems capable of musico-dramatic expression. A fascination with patterns, too, however, seems fruitfully suggested, in the end once more reminding us of that Turn of the Screw precedent. I am certainly not saying that what is heard musically must be recreated on stage, or indeed match the words. A little too often, though, I found the score, as it were, visually drowned out.
Such perhaps only became truly apparent in retrospect, following the second half’s powerfully integrated performance and production of The Lighthouse. Here, claustrophobia and terror grabbed us by the neck and never let go; yet so too did the suggestive and still surprising (however much one ‘knows’) turns of the dramatic screw. This, it seems to me, is an opera whose stature grows with every hearing, and London has been fortunate in recent years with possibilities. Richard Pinkstone, James Atkinson, and Timothy Edlin brought sharply characterised readings to their characters, yet their interaction proved just as impressive. So too was the playing of the RCM Opera Orchestra under Michael Rosewell: insidious purveyors and blenders of reality and imagination, complementing and immeasurably enhancing Unwin’s resourceful staging (not least Ralph Stokeld’s lighting, atmospheric and blinding by turn). Peter Maxwell Davies’s cunning use and abuse of parody set boundaries and dissolved them in oracular pronouncement. This was truly an apocalyptic pit of bestial expressionism. Every minute, even every second, was made to count: repetition never just repetition, development always called into question. Whether the Beast were ‘real’, whatever that might mean, proved both the question and quite beside the point. Tremendous stuff, then, as always: fully the equal of what we should have any right to expect from London’s larger houses.