Boston Lyric Opera probes the modern psyche with Glass’s “In the Penal Colony”

November 13, 2015
By David Wright
(From top): Yury Yanowsky as The Man, Neal Ferreira as The Visitor, and David McFerrin as The Officer in Boston Lyric Opera’sproduction of Philip Glass’s “In the Penal Colony.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

(From top): Yury Yanowsky as the Man, Neal Ferreira as The Visitor, and David McFerrin as The Officer in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Philip Glass’s “In the Penal Colony.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

In the age of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, it’s tempting to see the chamber opera In the Penal Colony, adapted by Philip Glass and librettist Rudy Wurlitzer from Franz Kafka’s 1918 short story, as a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of torture and inhumanity in a distant prison.  In fact, a note in the program of the BLO Opera Annex production, which opened Wednesday night in the Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts, invited the audience to do just that. 

But headlines weren’t the half of it.  Kafka’s oppressive story, which reportedly caused people in the audience to faint when he read it aloud, foresaw not just a century of mechanized cruelty, but the helplessness of the individual amid the spiritual crisis of a post-Freudian, God-is-dead world.

In music, there’s nothing like the driving repetitions of minimalism to express anxiety and obsession, and on Wednesday the eighty-or-so minutes of Glass’s dark, throbbing score for five stringed instruments seemed the sonic embodiment of Kafka’s sensibility.

The Kafka story, already simple in its outlines, was simplified still further by the librettist, who sheared off some scenes and a non-speaking character (a prison guard), leaving an elemental story and a cast of just three characters: a Visitor to the penal colony, the Officer who presides over the execution machine, and (in a non-singing role) the Man to be executed.

In the stark tale, equal parts Heart of Darkness and 2001: A Space Odyssey, a bemused Visitor arrives at the island colony to discover the Officer faithfully—no, obsessively—tending an invention of his deceased former commander: a miraculous machine that executes a condemned prisoner by carving the name of his crime into his flesh, thus offering him self-knowledge and redemption as he suffers a long, agonizing death.

As the Officer describes the workings of the machine in loving detail—this is presumably when the smelling salts came out at Kafka’s reading–the Visitor is appalled, but declines to intervene. When the Officer begs the Visitor to intercede with the new commander to get his machine repaired, the Visitor again demurs, causing the desperate Officer to release the condemned Man and fling himself on the machine, which malfunctions and kills him immediately. “No redemption…” murmurs the Visitor, as he catches his ship off the island.

On the bare stage of Wednesday’s performance, the main burden of evoking this bizarre world and its terrible machine rested on baritone David McFerrin as the Officer, who managed simultaneously to convey the mindless rigidity of military discipline and the agony of a man clinging desperately to his faith.

McFerrin had help in this from costume designer Terese Wadden, who fitted him out in a scary, mirror-visored red hazmat suit for his entrance, but had him (and his character’s psychic defenses) stripped to long johns by the end.

By contrast, Neal Ferreira as the Visitor wandered onto the stage in a T-shirt and sweat pants, looking as if he had planned to watch the game on TV tonight instead of going to a house of torture.  Like a Greek chorus, he embodied the audience’s feelings of pity and fear with a sort of choreography of anxious, contorted gestures.

This pantomime seemed hardly necessary, since Ferreira and McFerrin both put their lines across expressively and with crisp English diction in clear, ringing voices as well-matched as their last names—in fact, at times their vocal timbres in dialogue created the illusion of a single voice with enormous range.

Besides, when it came to choreography, it would be hard to compete with Yury Yanowsky as the condemned Man. Yanowsky, a familiar figure to local audiences from his years as a principal dancer with the Boston Ballet, showed he could still hop up on a suspended ramp (the others used a ladder), and more importantly, served as the silent conscience of the show, a quivering, anxious presence, like a dog that has been kicked too often.

In Wadden’s provocative costume design, Yanowsky was bare-chested and mud-daubed on top, and trailing clouds of black chiffon below like a christening dress—or a burial shroud.  (By contrast, the conductor and orchestra, playing stage left, wore more conventional prison uniforms.)

On the whole, director R.B. Schlather’s production was as minimal as the music, with mostly slow, stylized action and a set reminiscent of contemporary art installations.  The enormous polygonal space of the Cyclorama–a Victorian-era brick structure built to exhibit the gigantic paintings that were a popular entertainment at the time—was bisected by a ten-foot-high, featureless, angled wall like a Richard Serra sculpture. 

The only other conspicuous element in designer Julia Noulin-Mérat’s monochrome set was a steeply raked ramp lifted about four feet above stage level.  This was perhaps a sly allusion to opera convention: how many Brünnhildes have appeared at the top of such ramps, or Don Giovannis slid down them to perdition?

Lighting designer JAX Messenger lit the stage like art-in-a-box, with mostly industrial-style fluorescent tubes and rows of glaring LEDs emphasizing the set’s planes and angles.  This stark scheme not only suited the look of this production, but recalled the avant-garde opera designs of Kafka’s time, with their dark geometrical slabs and shafts of light.

Under Ryan Turner’s direction, the ensemble (Annie Rabbat and Colin Davis, violins; Kenneth Stalberg, viola; Loewi Lin, cello; and Robert Lyman, bass) provided a powerfully expressive, mostly low-pitched subtext to the stage action.  Glass’s repeating figures evoked blood pumping or edgy nerves one minute, and the throb and hum of the diabolical machine the next.

At the end, the Visitor caught his boat home by taking a seat in the audience, a reminder that all present had been visitors to the penal colony. A few minutes of enthusiastic applause later, it was time for everybody to get up and take that boat (or car or subway).  But the hour-and-a half on this island wouldn’t soon be forgotten.

In the Penal Colony will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.  [email protected]; 617-542-6772.

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