“In the Penal Colony”: cracking the Glass ceiling

Philip Glass’s music makes a perfect match to Kafka’s provocative story in Portland Opera’s potent production 

By BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Why on earth do we go to an opera? Great singing? Check. Realistic, affecting acting? Check. Innovative sets and staging ? Check. Uplifting and hopeful story leaving you with peace, happiness, and lightness of spirit.? Hmmm…uh, not so much, when the story is Philip Glass’s 2000 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”

From the get-go, the plot is studded with emotional downers, with no end in sight. It features, in a nutshell, a sentry who failed to salute an superior and is condemned – without his knowledge or ability to defend himself – to death on a contrived (and thankfully non-existent) mechanical apparatus that imprints the letters of a man’s crime on his flesh. Meanwhile, an Officer oversees the torture and a Visitor drops in to observe. Soooo… it’s a grand night for singing, eh? 

Ryan Thorn as The Officer in Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s ‘In the Penal Colony.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Yes, indeed, because it’s the Portland Opera and its production of In the Penal Colony, which runs through August 10 at Hampton Opera Center’s intimate studio theater, is a stunner.

But c’mon, this is not the only or last opera to get a bit grim. See Verdi: young Princess sealed in a tomb; father murders daughter in a sack. See Puccini: heroine dies of consumption, and so on. You see? Kafka’s grim, absurdist tale, void of heroes or redemption plot can exist comfortably in the opera genre – thanks to Philip Glass.

Within moments after the work begins you realize that the music of Glass is a perfect match for this heinous, absurdist story. Glass’s repetitive elements and the build-up of intensity via rhythm, dynamics and colors enliven the drama, promoting a cognition of the angst still to come. He chose ideal forces for a short story – two singer actors, two non-singing actors, string quintet (two violin, viola, cello, string bass). Read ArtsWatch’s preview feature.

All this is tucked neatly into the Portland Opera Association’s 230-seat Gregory G. and Mary Chomenko Hinkley Studio Theater in the Hampton Opera Center. Perfect choice for the name Glass gave this diminutive opera offering: “pocket opera.”

Rhetorical Repetition

There is a curious balance, or maybe an (ironic) anti-balance, in this opera’s structure. While there is little melodic repetition in the singing, there is massive repetition in the string quintet accompanying the singers. In fact, “repetitive structures,” and not “minimalism,” are what Glass prefers to call this aspect of his style. 

Try not to let the “Glass is just a minimalist and keeps repeating” dismissive quips scare you away from this excellent theater presentation. There can be a certain anarchy to repetition — but there is much repetition in all music. It actually sustains attention. Consider continuo parts in Bach, Monteverdi. Consider Buddy Holly. Taken in larger doses, Holst’s “Mars” (The Planets), Ravel’s Bolero, the Macarena. 

And upon closer analysis, not all repetition is an exact copy. The orchestral background of the Glass score is all about movement, facilitated by rhythm, often repetitive indeed. But some riffs are jazzy and syncopated, often using mixed meter. (When you see the conductor’s arms moving up and down in unequal motions, that’s often a sign of 2+3, or other brands of mixed meter.)

Philip Glass at an Oregon Bach Festival seminar. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

A Northwest opera coach and voice teacher also in attendance at this production noted the absence of typical recitative/aria opera design, remarking “everything is a recitation in this work.” Trying to define sections in Penal Colony as arias or recitatives is like slapping labels on Philip Glass. Good luck with that. 

Let’s just say the style is just good stage rhetoric – it communicates, it is the art of speaking but in musical notes. Rhetorical opera. Wait, did we just try to invent a new style? Rhetorical question.

Narration is a tricky mode on stage. Thornton Wilder used a “real” narrator to tell his story in Our Town. Shakespeare threw in a “chorus” here and there. But narrative stories aren’t easily thrown on stage unless the narration contains enough dialogue. 

And the Kafka original story provides a fascinating vehicle for this mode. It’s a narrative, but what the Officer and Visitor “say” is the basis for the sung text. The Officer, in nervousness or madness, spews the history, the rationale, the changes under the new Commander, his devotion to the old and his precise, almost mechanical descriptions of the horrific workings of the apparatus. 

The Visitor’s words are more carefully selected, sparse. The original story reflects more of his thoughts and rationale for his surprising “observer only” attitude. Since spoken word doesn’t bring all the emotion forward, good acting must. And it did here, from those with and without voices. 

Powerful Production

Baritone Ryan Thorn, as The Officer, possesses all the tools: impressive range, wide spectrum of dynamics; silvery tone, evenness and ease of delivery, and a voice that carries easily without ever seeming to push. He strokes the metal poles of the apparatus with just a suggestion of eroticism. His fingers mimic the action of the harrow spikes; his posture straightens as he speaks glowingly of The Old Commander. He unravels slowly, gracefully. 

Ryan Thorn as The Officer in Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s ‘In the Penal Colony.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

The Visitor was portrayed very effectively by tenor Martin Bakari, who sings with grace and care, and can float his high notes aloft like so many balloons.  It’s a challenging role. Mr. Bakari handled this very well with physical cues indicating his emotional involvement even if words did not.

Sean Doran played the role of the condemned man so well, his countenance in sync with the Kafka narrative: “The Condemned Man… had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution for him to return.”  He is given one line (in this adaptation) and, surprisingly, few outbursts of sound. But his portrayal of a man resigned and confused, then aware, was stellar. Even though he was on stage the entire performance, most of it clothed in nothing but grimy shorts, he was able to disappear or appear as appropriate. This performance was outstanding.

Kudos also to Nathan H.G. as the silent soldier who was stagehand, prop master and obedient servant to the Officer. A great performance in this role keeps everything moving along and he pulled it off. 

Sean Doran as The Condemned Man, Martin Bakari as the Visitor, and Nathan H.G. as The Soldier in Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal colony. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Stage director and set designer Jerry Mouawad, creative brain in the mise en scene, brought to bear a finely wrought staging and stage movement. The rectangular apparatus’ footprint serves as torture chamber, frame for the Old Commander’s precious blueprints, and tomb – a flimsy boundary between life and death, good and evil. Mouawad amplifies the tension by drawing the audience focus to it for nearly the entire performance. Lighting designer Carl Faber’s special lighting, sound designer Kyle Delamarter’s sound effects, and character interaction anthropomorphize the mechanism, like Stephen King’s Christine, and raise goosebumps.

Conductor Nicholas Fox was precise in evoking a well-prepared string group. There was a constant “dug in” string sound and at times a lighter bow might have produced a subtle nuance when drama called for it. But director Fox and the ensemble maintained focus throughout and deftly righted some singing which slipped the tracks.

A chief production concern was acoustic consistency. As listeners, we can only be sonically informed by our position in the hall. With the string quintet placed in one of the corner alcoves, audience members on either side, within five to eight seats, could not hear the singers well, particularly the tenor. Audience members on the opposite side of the hall said the balance was perfect. More attention to this is needed; there should not be limited-auditory sections in this hall dedicated to these performances.

Some extras make the Portland Opera a most enjoyable afternoon or evening out. After a well-organized and well informed lecture by local mezzo soprano Hannah Penn, enjoy the libations and “small bites” served by a peppy and affable staff. This is part of the intimacy that makes a Hampton Center a wonderful venue.

One non-musical issue became apparent with a patron falling on the bleacher stairs and the necessity of ushers having to chair-carry a man to the bottom. There are no railings and in view of the fact that many of us are, well, of an age, it does suggest a safety issue. Perhaps ushers can be strategically positioned to assist particularly at egress.

Franz Kafka

Kafka was 31 years old and in the middle of writing The Trial, just one year from completing one of his most famous stories, “The Metamorphosis.“In the Penal Colony” is certainly enigmatic but not at all problematic – unless one attempts to assign only one interpretation of the meaning. A book club selection of “In the Penal Colony” could offer discussions of a different topic each week: criminal justice in general, legalized executions, religion, leaders who become cult personalities, dual definitions of “abide,” loss of personal identity, being afraid to speak out – it might be months worth of thought provoking discussion. Add music to the discussion…well, art makes life so interesting.

What Glass has done with Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” and what the crew and cast of Portland Opera have done to bring it to us is worth your time. For some who might have placed a low ceiling on the works of Philip Glass, this work might just create a few cracks.

Portland Opera’s In the Penal Colony runs July 30, August 1, 3, 6, 8 and 10 at Hampton Opera Center’s Studio Theater. Tickets online.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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One Response. Have your say.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    did a show like this 10 years ago – don’t worry – not threatening to do it again…probably never again

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