Can Dallas Opera Pull Off One of Opera’s Most Difficult Works?

Contemporary chamber opera has taken root in Fort Worth, with several notable productions in recent years as part of the Fort Worth Opera’s spring festival. Friday night, the Dallas Opera made its first major entry into that field, with Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse at Wyly Theatre.

Extraordinary vocal demands and stringent dissonance are the most obvious features of The Lighthouse, which has been called, with good reason, one of the most difficult operas in the repertoire. One could well say that the work, for three singers and a dozen instrumentalists, must be performed very well or not at all. In this tightly designed score, a missed note or entrance could be disastrous.

Responsibility rests almost equally among the singers, who must produce correct pitches with very little cue from the orchestra and all thirteen of the accompanying musicians, who perform on a menagerie of instruments including banjo, deliberately out-of-tune piano, and referee’s whistle. If any one individual has a greater burden, it’s the conductor, who in this case is Nicole Paiement. She combined old-fashioned precision and discipline with up-to-the-minute insight into the complex modernity of the score.

In spite of the complexity of the music, there’s a deeply traditional angle to The Lighthouse as well. Based on a historical incident (the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers of the coast ofScotland in 1900), it demands that the three singers present their double roles convincingly and dramatically, all the while hitting every note precisely. Tenor Andrew Bidlack, baritone Robert Orth, and bass Daniel Sumegi manage all of this along with the distinctive portrayals of human archtypes the work demands.

Stage director Kevin Moriarty discovers numerous meaningful subtleties in the words and music, and designer Beowulf Borrit’s revolving set provides an appropriately ominous space for this ghost story. One couldn’t help thinking, however, that more sophisticated use of lighting and less dependence on real water (which made absolutely no visual impact) would be ultimately more effective.

The Dallas premiere of The Lighthouse, which has become, since its debut in 1980, one of the most frequently performed contemporary operas, was long overdue. The questions it raises and dilemmas it voices epitomize the niche opera has carved for itself in the culture of the twenty-first century—not as a showpiece for the elite, but as an essential element in the search for meaning in a society in turmoil with itself.

Photo by Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera