In the Penal Colony
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In Review > North America

In the Penal Colony

Boston Lyric Opera

In Review In the Penal Colony lg 216
Yanowsky, Ferreira and McFerrin in Boston’s Penal Colony
© T. Charles Erickson

BOSTON LYRIC OPERA'S new production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony,mounted in the panopticon-like space of the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, was intricately choreographed and executed with panache and genuine passion by its principals. The show’s second half really caught fire in performance on November 11, overcoming a dull first half.  

Glass’s opera is based on one of Franz Kafka’s most mesmerizing stories. The libretto, by Rudolph Wurlitzer, adheres quite closely to the original. The Visitor, played by tenor Neal Ferreira, has been invited to witness the execution of a prisoner in a distant penal colony. He finds out that the punishment is to be carried out via a nightmarish procedure—a giant machine literally carves the sentence into the skin of the prisoner. The Officer, sung by baritone David McFerrin, oversees and explains the execution.

The Officer’s explanation/exposition, as well as some half-hearted venting on the Visitor’s part at having to be a witness to the punishment, dominates the first half of the evening and makes for essentially tedious viewing. In Kafka’s story, the first half breezes by, thanks to the subtle use of humor: Kafka pokes fun at the Officer’s officiousness and has an absurd pantomime sideshow involving the antics of the convicted prisoner. Glass’s idiom, however, contains little if any humor or wit: despite the macabre details of the execution process, all that really happens is exposition, and Glass’s style simply does not work here.

But music and story click in the second half. It’s revealed that the Officer is the last, faithful adherent to this old way of execution. He knows that the penal colony’s new commander is planning to phase out this method of punishment. When the Officer realizes that the Visitor is going to make a negative report, thus quashing any chance of the continued use of the machine, the Officer decides that the only thing to do is commit honorable suicide: he will be the last person to be executed by the machine.

Glass’s music gains haunting power in the second half. The darkness that in Kafka is leavened by absurdity and wit is here brought to the fore. When McFerrin’s Officer sinks into a reverie about the machine’s glory days, the score pulses eerily to his musings. We understand the Officer’s nostalgia as we are coldly reminded that the Officer is reminiscing about a procedure that carves words into people’s skin until they die. Glass’s music is also spot-on when the Officer rails—as much as one can rail in a Glass opera—against the “oppression” of the penal colony’s new and modern regime. 

Despite interest in the opera as a depiction of totalitarian regimes (the BLO staging, by R. B. Schlather, draws a visual parallel between the Visitor and Edward Snowden, even giving Ferreira familiar glasses to wear), that aspect is only subsidiary. Glass’s music reveals the Officer as the fable’s isolated and tragic hero, or antihero.

Ferreira and McFerrin both turned in excellent performances. Ferreira’s rich, supple tenor was perfect for conveying the Visitor’s unease at being forced to witness such a barbaric practice. McFerrin’s ample baritone was darkly authoritative and impassioned. Both voices easily filled the space, and both singers brought impressive physicality to the performance. A third, key performer was Yury Yanowsky, a former Boston Ballet principal dancer, in an enthralling mute role listed simply as “Man,” who could have been a ghost of all past prisoners executed by the machine. In the pit, Ryan Turner drew a lush, urgent performance from a string quintet, the sole orchestral forces.  —Angelo Mao 

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