Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

Philip Glass’s best-known operatic works – the ‘Portrait Trilogy’ of Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten – focus on iconic figures driven by inner vision and conviction to change the world for the better. Einstein, Gandhi and Akhnaten – though overcoming strife and difficulty on the way – achieve their destinies, and their music, while containing periods of tension and aggression, is ultimately uplifting. The making of the representative for Planet 8 (from Doris Lessing’s novel), which followed these, showed a darker side, dealing as it does with the extinction of an entire human(-oid) species, but still ended in transfiguration and hope. At first glance, Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony appears to inhabit a very different kind of world, the central construct being a gruesome machine for the torture and execution of transgressing prisoners, the central character being an officer devoted to its maintenance and operation. However, from the grotesque context emerge not only themes of violence, degradation and obsession, but also of epiphany, transfiguration and redemption. The formal structure of the drama is also, clearly, something that was likely to appeal to the composer’s classicist sensibilities. Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto and stage directions follow Kafka’s original story closely, with the dialogue between the Officer and the Visitor (Explorer or Traveller in some translations) which makes up the majority of the text faithfully preserved, and the Visitor’s private thoughts becoming short soliloquies. The music, while consisting of recognisable Glass-isms from the start (minor triad-based oscillations, superimposition of simple and compound quaver rhythms, etc), keeps the main repetitive structures within the strings (reminiscent most of his Dracula quartet), allowing the voices freer and longer melodic lines than in much of the music mentioned above.

Glass describes In the Penal Colony, along with his other smaller-scale stage works (including Orphée, performed at the Linbury five years ago) as “pocket operas”, requiring only a few performers and “sets you could put in a couple of suitcases”. In director Michael McCarthy’s production with Music Theatre Wales, the four nameless characters (Visitor, Officer, Soldier and Condemned Man – of which only the first two are singing roles) are shrunk to three with the removal of the Soldier role, an excision which in fact makes very little difference. Also on stage and visible throughout, positioned behind the dramatic arena, are the six musicians – string quintet and conductor Michael Rafferty. Simon Banham’s set, while not quite fitting in a suitcase, is spare in the extreme, consisting of table, chair and ladder, plus a few small props. This may be disappointing for those hoping to see a full physical recreation of the magnificent flaying machine, but the aim is (as I understand it) to provoke the audience to exercise their own imaginations and picture the horrors so vividly described by the Officer. In Joanne Akalaitis’s 2001 New York production, the emphasis on the fictional nature of the events portrayed was enhanced by the addition of Kafka himself (or rather, an actor playing Kafka) scribbling in notebooks and reading journal fragments; not having been present for that performance I cannot make a fully informed judgment on the idea, but am, on the whole, glad that this was not the case here. Perhaps surprisingly, the visible string players did not ground one in the reality of sitting in a theatre, watching the telling of a story, but rather had something of a Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps feel, musicians imprisoned in a concentration camp, playing to the end.

Omar Ebrahim brought a hysterical, flashing-eyed zeal to the role of the Officer, first lovingly describing his machine and his idolised Old Commander who created it, declaiming with missionary fervour its power to bring enlightenment to criminals and the community, desperately begging the Visitor to help save it (and him), and, on realising his era was ending, seeking his own redemption – unsuccessfully – by offering himself as the machine’s final victim. Ebrahim’s secure, full-throated baritone rang out powerfully, but he also produced a gentle, lyrical tone in both upper and lower registers during certain more contemplative moments. Particularly interesting was the way he and the strings shifted between more vigorously rhythmic and more romantically legato versions of the same melodic figures. The machine, of course, is horrible, and its creator sadistic, but for a while we see/hear them via the Officer’s loving eye.

Michael Bennett had perhaps the more difficult character in which to convince, the sociologist Visitor being a fine example of Kafkaian moral ambiguity: first bored and disdainful, perpetually uncomfortable, and while he eventually takes a stand against the execution of the Condemned Man (although approving that of the Officer), seems to do so more in distaste and embarrassment than ethical imperative. In the early scenes, there were distinct balance issues between Bennett and the gorgeously rich and full-toned lower strings, with him appearing and disappearing in the ‘mix’ while singing, but this acoustic problem did not persist (and I gather was not a problem at all from other parts of the auditorium). At the start he was also a somewhat uneven in tone, but this may have been a function of the dynamics, as his sound became fuller, smoother and with a particularly pleasing purity in the higher-lying passages. The opera does not contain arias in the traditional sense, but the moments in which the Visitor reflects by himself – with growing intensity of feeling – were very fine. I often find it difficult to make out singers’ words, so the fact that both Bennett and Ebrahim were so clear in their enunciation was a definite bonus.

The Condemned Man, a dumb presence throughout, was inhabited with unnerving intensity by Gerald Tyler. Like an abused dog, he cringed when struck, beamed with thankfulness at being given a scrap of food, gazed at the two men in hopeless desperation to understand, and, grotesquely, sometimes copied the Officer’s gestures in a pathetic attempt to please.

After so much abstract or indirect portrayal, it was quite a shock, when the Officer finally sets the (invisible) machine upon himself, to suddenly have very visible blood spraying and splashing on his back. Although the denouement is certainly shocking, and intentionally so, I found this sudden leap into realism rather jarring. Also, while I liked Sound Intermedia’s threatening industrial hum in the background, the explicit grinding and dripping noises seemed somewhat bolted-on. However, these are small points. Overall, the production was visually effective and musically interesting throughout. While I have difficulty seeing it winning over new fans to Philip Glass or contemporary chamber opera, those familiar with the genre should definitely take advantage of the rare opportunity to hear this work.

Music Theatre Wales’s production of In the Penal Colony will be touring until 17 November.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]

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