|(From top) Yury Yanowsky, Neal Ferreira & David McFerrin in "In the Penal Colony"|
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
One would be hard pressed to imagine a more challenging venue for attending an opera than the Cyclorama Building in Boston's South End, but that's precisely where Boston Lyric Opera's current production, “In the Penal Colony”, is being performed. A one-act chamber opera by Phillip Glass, with a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer (in English), it was first produced in 2000 in Seattle. It's about eighty minutes long; Glass termed it his “pocket opera”. Based on Kafka's 1914 dystopian short story, it features a death machine, namely a harrow, a farm implement with spike-like teeth intended to level soil, but used for medieval torture. It's at the center of this dark tale of the breakdown of civil society, about crime and unusual punishment, set in a penal colony. Written and composed to feature three performers and a string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, and bass), the work turned out to be a perfect choice for this venue (as part of the BLO's Opera Annex program), thanks to some ingenuity on the part of the creative team, especially in overcoming potential acoustical concerns.
The story begins as a Visitor (tenor Neal Ferreira) arrives at the penal colony, invited by its new commander to witness an execution, conducted by the Officer (baritone David McFerrin), of a Man (actor Yury Yanowsky). The condemned man doesn't know his fate and has had no chance to defend himself; “guilt is always beyond doubt”. The machine is constructed to emboss a description of the man's crime into his flesh during twelve hours of torture until the “transfiguring moment of redemption as the victim realizes the nature of his crime”. The Visitor is appalled but feels he has no right to intervene. When the machine malfunctions, the Officer frees the prisoner, climbs in, and discovers that “he never found what he sought and what all the others found...no sign of redemption...none at all”.
Throughout the piece, with its pulsating “ostinatos” (Glass' typical musical perseverations), ranging from forceful surges to more meditative calm, with its plaintive sections for the violins, inquiring cello, and sudden pauses, there was conveyed a feeling of dread, most especially with the abrupt silence after the climax. Thanks in large part to the superb interpretation of Conductor Ryan Turner and his quintet, and the marvelous Stage Direction by R.B. Schlather, with effective Set Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, clever Costume Design by Terese Wadden and wondrously original Lighting Design by JAX Messinger, this was a somewhat creepy and chilling experience, precisely as it was intended to be. McFerrin and Ferreira were both in fine voice, managing to fill the hall with their intensely dramatic singing and movement, which also involved former Boston Ballet star Yanowsky, a tremendous asset to the performance. The efforts of the entire team made for an unforgettable production. Even the surtitles (by John Conlin and Allison Voth) became an integral part of this portrayal of a disintegrating society.
Some of the audience may not have been devotees of the composer's oeuvre before this; this brief but spellbinding opera could break that Glass ceiling. It's arguably his most approachable music, and, as presented by the BLO, a true triumph in the company's history.