Alexander Knight, Daniel Macey, Mitchell Riley in The Lighthouse (Pic: Louis Dillon-Savage)

Considers the relative prevalence and popularity of chamber music and it begs the question: why isn’t there more of it?’ Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse is one such and, if the still nascent Sydney Chamber Opera has its way, I presume there’ll be more. I hope so, as artistic director Louis Garrick and music director Jack Symonds have got it very, very right, from woe to go. It’s encouraging to see the City Of Sydney, Carriageworks and the University Of Sydney Union getting right behind this ambitious boutique company, too.

The Lighthouse consists of a prologue and one act and runs 75 minutes. But don’t assume it’s lightweight. It’s intense. Dramatic. Challenging. But not without a leavening sense of humour, as Davies barrels in with references to shanties and music hall. The 12-piece orchestra even includes honky-tonk piano and, wait for it, banjo. As Symonds points out, this is a score utterly devoted to the service of the narrative. As such, one shouldn’t expect ravishing tunefulness, in the style of classic Italian opera. Don’t keep your ears pealed fro a flower duet; it’s not going to happen. Indeed, it’s been eloquently said Davies “rejects the consolation of melody”.

Piquantly, it’s based on a true story and, if it wasn’t, it probably could’ve been contrived by Agatha Christie. And it’s good to know opera is still being written: this one hails from 1979, not 1879, even if the setting is December, 1900.

Picture this. Three young keepers don’t fare well in their lonely existence in a remote Scottish lighthouse. Despite the almost certain presence of whisky, or perhaps because of it, they descend into madness. Perhaps the haggis was left unrefrigerated. We simply don’t know. What happens to them after that? Your guess is probably as good as anyone’s. The supply ship that arrived carrying relief found an open door, a toppled chair, an uncleared table and made beds.  But no trace of the blokes.

The prologue puts us in a court of enquiry, where three of the ship’s officers relate their varying accounts (if you’ve ever done jury duty and heard police and other evidence, you’ll quite likely nod in recognition) of what they found. There’s humour in this, of course, but, as with the murder trial I found myself ensconced in, a more sinister, serious side prevails. An open verdict is recorded, due to contradictory accounts. Did these men have something to hide?

In the main and only act, “The Cry Of The Beast”, we meet cabin-fevered Arthur, Sandy and Blazes. Their cooped-upness is playing on their nerves and beginning to tell in bickering. Sandy proposes a singalong, but where’s the pianola? Like men through the ages with too much time on their hands (or ready access to acid), their naval gazing turns to navel-gazing and they begin to be tormented, then plagued, by regret. Rescue is at hand, but they can’t see it. In lieu of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, they see only an oncoming train, mistaking the ship’s beacon for the antichrist, as you do. They venture out, in search of the beast, primed to kill. The rest is history or, at least, shrouded in mystery as thick as a fog rolling acres a loch.

From beginning to end, this is a vision splendid; aurally, too. First and foremost, Davies’ immensely dauntingly difficult score is tackled defiantly by Symonds and his musicians. It’s as volatile, thunderous, moody, brooding, dark, deep and unpredictable as the sea itself, constantly driving the action forward according to its currents. The expansive venue (Bay 20) features what can only be described as a giant “aspirin” stage: a flat, faux concrete disc. It affords much creativity, which is met in spades by savant director Kip Williams. As if to match the composer’s notion of voicing the judge with a French horn, KW has seated him on high, in a supersized, runged umpire’s chair. The non-singing ensemble are clad in black raincoats. They sway gently from side-to-side to emulate the motion of the ocean and, in Nicholas Rayment’s menacingly low lighting, surreptitiously cluster together to form the silhouette of a lighthouse. With precious few well-placed props, these and other entire tableaux are laid out. It’s ingenious, elegant work (which, without fear or favour, I can confidently pronounce to be among the best I’ve seen all year, without a shadow of a doubt), which owes a good deal of credit to set and costume designer, Michael Hankin.

The three singers are extraordinary. At different points, I’d singled out different singers as the standout, but over the course of the work each proved the others’ equal. This is saying something, since, as with the instrumentalists, they’re pushed to absolute limits by the cruelly ambitious author. Conventional classifications almost fly completely out the window, with the use of, for example, falsetto. Daniel Macey is Sandy, a role which calls for a tenor; Mitchell Riley, Blazes, a baritone; Alex Knight, Arthur, a bass. But Davies seems to pay little regard to these orthodoxies, with each seeming to step well outside conventional technical vocal parameters for their voice types.

The percussive emphasis of the composition ensures a consistently violent rush of sound, over which trombone tumbles and flutes dance. It’s the musical equivalent of The Shining, a relentless, edge-of-the-seat psychological thriller; a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride; a perfect storm. As an evocation of the bleak, forbidding landscape that is (at least in my mind’s eye) the Outer Hebrides and predication of the lurking, rampaging beast in all of us, it’s a virtually unparalleled feat of theatre, faultlessly realised by this potent company.

The details: The Lighthouse played Carriageworks’ Bay 20 on November 24, 26 and 28.