Ryan Thorn

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.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Happy accidents

Music editor misses Glass opera, amplified strings, and the end of CMNW

Allow me to get personal for a moment. You, my dear readers, know that I’m involved in this vibrant local music scene I’ve been writing about every week for the last three years. As a student at Portland State University, I walk past area composers Kenji Bunch and Bonnie Miksch in the hallways about once a week. Until recently, I sat on the board of Cascadia Composers (about whom you can read all about right here in Maria “Arts Bitch” Choban’s detective hunt). I play drums in a surf punk band and gongs in a Balinese gamelan, and most of my friends and acquaintances are musicians. It’s inevitable that your ever-busy music editor will occasionally find himself becoming Part of the Story.

Music editor Matt Andrews becomes Part of the Story. Photo by Matias Brecher.

So this week I’m going to lean into that pretty hard and tell you all about my brother’s band. I’ll also explain why you have to go to a bunch of wonderful local concerts in my stead this weekend, beautiful shows I’ve been waiting all year for, all piling up here at the bottom of July where I have to miss them because I’ll be spending the next five days packing for a six-week trip to Bali.

But first, a case for Mozart.

To garden or not to garden

Portland Opera earns its place in the city’s music scene for one reason: they pour almost as much time, effort, talent, and money into productions of operas by living U.S. composers as they put into the classics. (Honestly that’s a pretty generous “almost,” but they do alright for an arts organization of their heft. Oregon Symphony does better, but they also do more.)

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Through a Glass, Darkly

Philip Glass’s setting of Franz Kafka’s allegorical tale remains as relevant as ever

Philip Glass never expected In the Penal Colony to be a success. “When I wrote it, I thought, it’ll get done once and then no one will ever do it again,” Glass said. “Why would you want to watch a suicide? Basically that’s what you’re doing. And it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. I would say it’s the most performed opera that I’ve written.”

Glass’s misgivings are understandable. Even for the world’s most famous living composer, In the Penal Colony doesn’t exactly scream “crowd pleaser.” Written at the outset of World War I and published in 1919, Franz Kafka’s brief, bleak tale is set in a penal colony, where The Visitor has been invited to witness an execution. The Officer in charge wants him to endorse to the colony’s new commander the continuation of the peculiar — and horrific — execution method devised by the now deceased Old Commander. The killing machine, called The Apparatus, tortures condemned prisoners to death by excruciatingly inscribing, over up to 12 hours, a description of their crimes directly on their flesh. The prisoners are never told the nature of their crimes, but readers discover that this one was condemned for failing to salute his superior’s door each hour. The Officer believes the tormented prisoners achieve ecstatic enlightenment at the moment of death.

A scene from Portland Opera's new production of Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony. Photo by Cory Weaver.
A scene from Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The apparently more enlightened new regime recoils at the Apparatus’s barbarity, and so does The Visitor. And yet, “it’s always risky interfering in other peoples’ business,” he sings in Glass’s opera. “I oppose this procedure, but I will not intervene.” 

Allegorical Apparatus

Kafka’s grim allegory sent shudders through an Industrial Revolution society besotted with emergent technology’s promise. When science was sundered from morality, modern inventions could have a dark side, distancing humans from the consequences of their actions, numbing us to the dangers of our ingenuity. 

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MusicWatch Monthly: Too many notes

Summer gets all sweaty, with classical and jazz festivals, operas, experimental sound art, and a bit of good old-fashioned NW gonzo punk

Garden wall at Lan Su Chinese Garden. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

La Finta Giardiniera
July 12-27, Newmark Theater
In The Penal Colony
July 26-August 10, Hampton Opera Center

It’s oddly appropriate that Portland Opera is closing its season with summer performances of Mozart and Philip Glass. Both composers are that rare breed: equally adept at performing their own chamber music, writing grand symphonies for orchestra, and collaborating on a variety of comic and tragic operas on themes both timeless and timely.

They have both also been accused, perhaps justly, of writing too many damn notes, and that’s part of why the best way to experience theatrically-inclined composers like Mozart and Glass is in their native habitat: the opera house. That’s really where their music lives best, in live performances rich with grand singing, engaging sets and costumes and lighting and the other “works” which give opera its name—plus the comedic and dramatic intimacy that is live theater’s specialty.

July 12-27, PO stages the lesser-known Mozart opera La Finta Giardiniera, in its second Portland production of the year (PSU Opera put on their own production earlier this year). Lindsay Ohse stars; Chas Rader-Shieber directs.

July 26-August 10, Jerry Mouawad (co-founder of Portland’s Imago Theatre) returns for another modern “pocket opera.” PO specializes in presenting these chamber operas by modern composers, thrilling Portland audiences recently with Laura Kaminsky’s As One and in 2017 with Mouawad’s production of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and The Little Match Girl Passion. Martin Bakari and Ryan Thorn star in Glass’s adaptation of the terrifying Kafka story.

Jazz and Blues

Waterfront Blues Festival
July 4-7, Waterfront Park

For over three decades, Portland’s iconic blues festival has been a hot, sweaty, messy, crowded, rite of passage. It’s such an undertaking they’ve got a handy little guide for navigating the four-day, four-stage fest sprawled across the west side of the river, wedged between the waves and the construction cranes.

Take a look at the line-up right here. If any of those musical legends and other hot-shit artists sound like you’d want to get into a sweltering, sunscreen-slathered groove with them and a thousand other vibing blues fans down on the sun-baked shore of the Willamette River—then pack yourself a bag full of bottled water, grab a big floppy sun hat, and get your ass down to the water.

Waterfront Blues Festival, July 7, 2018.
Waterfront Blues Festival, July 7, 2018.

Jazz in the Garden
Tuesdays, July 16-August 20, Lan Su Chinese Garden

Across six Tuesdays this summer, Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town Portland hosts PDX Jazz’s Summer Music Series, featuring a variety of international and local artists. On July 16th, it’s Malian supergroup BKO Quintet; on July 23, Portland vibraphonist Mike Horsfall pays tribute to Cal Tjader; on July 30, erstwhile Portland saxophonist Hailey Niswanger returns from Brooklyn with her band MAE.SUN. In August, jazz and soul singer China Moses performs on the 6th, pianist Connie Han plays on the 13th, and on the 20th Bobby Torres Ensemble commemorates Woodstock.

The Territory
July 15, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College
July 16, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University

Local superstar jazz composer and pianist Darrell Grant is having a busy year, as usual. His nine-movement suite for jazz ensemble The Territory, premiered at Chamber Music Northwest in 2013, led to the formation of the “Oregon Territory Ensemble,” which has continued performing the landscape-inspired music and recorded it with Grant in 2015.

They’ll perform The Territory here twice in July, and the line-up is pure local A-list: Florestan Trio cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, vocalist Marilyn Keller (From Maxville to Vanport), bass clarinetist Kirt Peterson, multi-instrumentalist John Nastos, trumpeter Thomas Barber, drummer Tyson Stubelek, bassist Eric Gruber, and vibraphonist Mike Horsfall.

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A Cinderella story for modern times

Portland Opera's sly and witty version of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" sparkles with raffish theatricality and hints of power used and tamed.

While the temperature in downtown Portland was inching toward 100 degrees on Sunday afternoon something cool was happening in the Newmark Theatre, and it wasn’t just the air-conditioning. Portland Opera was kicking into the second performance of its current run of Gioachino Rossini’s splendid little comedy La Cenerentola (it has four remaining performances, July 19, 21, 25, and 28), and it felt just a little like good old-fashioned populist show biz: music-hall stuff, bright and gaudy and smoothly polished and pleasingly antique, like a visit to the Moulin Rouge or D’Oyly Carte. The band was brassy and cheeky and the acting was brisk and impeccably choreographed, an effect accidentally underscored by the coincidental scheduling of auditions for those high-kicking goddesses of the basketball court the Blazer Dancers in the Winningstad Theatre downstairs. The Blazer aspirants had their own contingent of enthusiastic followers, and the blend of opera lovers and sporting fans led to an interesting mixture of audiences and sometimes skimpy costuming in the lobby beforehand.

Caught in the frame: Stepsisters Tisbe (Laura Beckel Thoreson, left) and Clorinda (Helen Huang) primp and preen. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

La Cenerentola is a retelling of the Cinderella story, without the fairy godmother or the magic mice and pumpkin but with some terrific melodies, and after the lengthy overture (William Tell wasn’t the only overture Rossini wrote) the opera opens with the two spoiled stepsisters popping about the stage like bright-cheeked marionettes, or maybe floppy rag dolls in their skivvies, while Cenerentola, poor cinder maid, slumps morosely in the corner, singing a sad song that only irritates her petulant sisters as they primp and fuss.

Fatuous step-pappa Don Magnifico (there is no stepmother in this version) is snoozing out of sight in the background, and pretty soon a beggar shows at the doorstep: He is roundly reviled by the stepsisters but treated kindly by Cenerentola (or Angelina, as she comes to be known for her sweet spiritual goodness), who feeds him while the sisters aren’t looking. Let that suffice for setup. There is a prince, there is a ball, there are disguises, there is a search (not for a glass slipper, but a matching bracelet), and love, of course, triumphs. Love, and a friskily told, slyly comic story.

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‘Cosí fan tutte’ review: psychedelic shtick

Portland Opera's new production adds 21st century multimedia and more to Mozart's comedy

by TERRY ROSS

Portland Opera has done itself proud with its production of Mozart’s silly, sexist, lighthearted, and hilarious opera Cosí fan tutte, written in 1790 and now playing in Portland5’s cozy little Newmark Theatre. The opening night show on Bastille Day showed all hands on deck and also all the shtick one could ask for, including some psychedelic business from the 21st century’s drug culture.

Aaron Short, Daniel Mobbs, Ryan Thorn in Portland Opera’s ‘Cosí fan tutte.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

Although performed only five times in Mozart’s lifetime due to the untimely death of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, considered at the time to have commissioned the opera, Cosí has been in almost continuous production somewhere in the world ever since. The reasons are simple. The music, although not serious in the vein of Don Giovanni or even Idomeneo, is vivacious and beautifully crafted. And the story, all about whether young lovers can be sexually faithful, is universal. If the focus is entirely on the faithfulness of the women in the two featured couples, and not on their menfolk, chalk it up to the patriarchal mores of 18th-century Europe’s dominant culture. And to the 18th-century seats of power, in the arts, in politics, and in all walks of life.

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‘La Boheme’ review: small favors

In Portland Opera's insufficiently intimate production of the Puccini perennial, the lightest parts are the strongest

by TERRY ROSS

Sometimes it’s the little things that count. Portland Opera’s current production of Giacomo Puccini’s warhorse La Bohème survives because the two merely adequate main characters are supplemented by lively, well-sung performances by their supporting cast.

Portland Opera’s 2017 ‘ La Bohème.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

Mimi, the doomed seamstress and heroine, is impersonated by soprano Vanessa Isiguen, a Portland singer making her local opera debut. She has a nice, not huge voice and delivers the notes of Puccini’s score faithfully, but her Mimi is never the forlorn and waifish vessel the opera calls for. From beginning to tragic end, she looks and sounds positively plump and happy rather than emaciated by tuberculosis and disheartened. The makeup team at Portland Opera shares some of the blame here. Still, whatever the words before her, Ms. Isiguen sings but does not act while singing.

Her other half, Rodolfo, also shows emotion chiefly when not singing. Rome-born tenor Giordano Lucá demonstrates a radiant smile, but, alone among the cast, while singing keeps his eyes fixed on conductor George Manahan. One might expect a man who has sung this role in at least six European houses to loosen up a little and at least gaze at his beloved while singing to her, instead of staring over her shoulder at the orchestra pit. His voice, a lyric instrument, is right for Rodolfo, but Mr. Lucá tries to make the part a true spinto role by pushing into a Heldentenor’s voice production. This causes strain in the top notes and never sounds comfortable.

Jennifer Forni excels in ‘Boheme.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

Jennifer Forni’s performance as the charming, coquettish and sluttish Musetta helps a great deal. This lively soprano has previously appeared in two Portland Opera productions, and her depiction of over-the-top flirtatiousness is just right here, as is her sharp, bright voice. The whole production lights up when the focus is on her and her sometime boyfriend Marcello, very well acted and sung by Will Liverman, making his Portland Opera stage debut.

In fact, the lightest parts of this production are the strongest; it’s nice to remember that Puccini had a good ironic sense of humor to go with his sentimental romanticism. In this sense, the practical and jaded Musetta — with her charming waltz, nicely rendered by Ms. Forni — is central to the plot.

Also crucial are the amusing scenes of the four artists in their garret. Rodolfo the starving poet, Marcello the starving painter, Colline the starving philosopher, and Schaunard the starving musician rarely have enough money for either food or firewood, let alone rent. Their shenanigans are a pure illustration of the bohemian lifestyle that dooms poor Mimi, who hasn’t the resourcefulness or deviousness to survive poverty, and besides is the wrong sex for many of the garret boys’ machinations.

Christian Zaremba, Giordano Lucá, Ryan Thorn, Deac Guidi, Will Liverman in ‘La Bohème.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

Her female counterpart Musetta perseveres only by jumping from sugar daddy to sugar daddy, a tactic that gives her jewels and nice outfits but no more security than Mimi. (Her clothes are a clever touch by the costume department: obviously costly but not tasteful.)

Bass Christian Zaremba, a veteran performer in his first Portland Opera stage role, is funny and acts well as the philosopher, and his voice nicely mixes with the other bohemians. Ryan Thorn, as Schaunard the musician, uses his strong baritone to excellent effect, and his facial expressions enliven the garret proceedings.

George Manahan’s orchestra played well throughout, and Stage Director Kathleen Belcher’s stage movements were basically good, although things get a little hairy (and crowded) when the chorus is on stage, along with a bunch of kids, a toy seller, a small marching band of soldiers, and all the principal characters, in Act II’s street scene. The sets, of which there three, were fine, although the one used in Acts I and IV (the garret), seemed far too spacious for the penurious claustrophobia the story seems to suggest.

Mimi’s death at the end in this cavernous mausoleum of an apartment is somehow minimized by the enormous space. But all the action of story is finished by then, anyway, and we can be grateful to Mimi and Rodolfo’s stage cohort for an entertaining evening.

Recommended recording

Victoria de los Angeles (Mimì), Jussi Björling (Rodolfo), Lucine Amara (Musetta), Robert Merrill (Marcello), John Reardon (Schaunard), and Giorgio Tozzi (Colline) with the RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham conducting (Naxos 8.111249/50), 1956.

Portland Opera’s latest  La Bohème continues Thursday and Saturday at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Tickets and info online.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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