IN THE PENAL COLONY
An Opera by Philip Glass
Libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer Based on the original story by Franz Kafka.
Performance by Sydney Chamber Opera on Monday, 9th April 2012, at the Parade Playhouse, Parade Theatres, Kensington in Sydney.
Conductor Huw Belling
Director Imara Savage
Designer Michael Hankin
Lighting Designer Verity Hampson
The Visitor Pascal Herrington
The Officer Paul Goodwin-Groen
The Condemned Man Anthony Hunt
The Guard Patrick George
and the Chamber Ensemble
This is sadly said to be the first performance of an opera by Phillip Glass in Sydney.
Philip Glass first came to international attention in 1976 with EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH, the ground-breaking music theatre work he created with artist Robert Wilson. This was premiered in Avignon in France and within a year had found its way to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The success of Einstein came at a time when Glass had already been working for a number of years in the world of theatre, writing incidental music for plays and other works. Even today, after composing ten symphonies, eleven concertos, five string quartets, and numerous other pieces which defy genre, Glass continues first and foremost to describe himself as a ‘theatre composer.’
Immediately after Einstein, Glass was approached by the director of the Netherlands Opera, Hans de Roo, to “write him a real opera.” By this, de Roo meant an opera for orchestra and acoustic voices intended for the regular forces of a standard repertory opera house. Glass responded with the second of his ‘portrait’ operas – SATYAGRAHA, a word meaning “truth-force.” Satyagraha is about Gandhi’s years in South Africa where he developed the most potent of his ideas about peaceful resistance. In 2008, when the opera was revived at the Metropolitan Opera, New York Glass said “I wrote this opera in 1979 in reaction to what I thought was an extremely violent world. I had no idea that 30 years later it would be much more violent.” This theme of violence in society is again explored most graphically in his 2000 chamber opera IN THE PENAL COLONY based on Kafka’s novella of the same name.
Musically, Glass is a minimalist composer, a style of music associated with the work of American composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Glass, characterised by periods of silence, long pulsating drone-like phrases, continuities requiring slow modulation of one or more parameters, and re-iteration of musical ideas such as phrases figures, motives or cells. Consonant harmony is also a feature. Starting in the early 1960s as an underground scene in San Francisco alternative spaces and New York lofts, minimalism spread to become the most popular experimental music style of the late 20th century. In Europe, the music of Michael Nyman, Henryk Gorecki and Arvo Part exhibit minimalist features.
Lately with growth in his musical style, Glass has distanced himself from the “minimalist” label, describing himself instead as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.” Currently, he describes himself as a “Classicist”!
IN THE PENAL COLONY concerns a Condemned Man who is about to be executed. The procedure is expected to be efficient, quiet and anonymous. But torture is a messy business, and not everything goes according to plan.His executioner is an Officer who regards the old way of doing things as the correct way, the only way. The new Commander of the penal colony has requested that the execution be witnessed by a Visitor. The Officer describes the execution machine to the Visitor, detailing its conception, its construction and finally its method. The method of execution is the most horrific and inhumane imaginable. The Officer’s zealous dedication to this method is based on his belief that the machine has the power to bring about a moment of transfiguration in the victim, the moment they understand the crime they have committed and see the error of their ways. As he awaits his execution, the Condemned Man knows nothing of either his conviction or his punishment.
The Visitor is increasingly appalled by what he sees, but seems incapable of intervening. At what point does the silence of the visitor become immoral? When does non-intervention become a crime? When the Officer realises that his beliefs will no longer be accepted, there is only one course left. The real horror of the machine is now revealed.
Rising Australian stars, director Imara Savage and designer Michael Hankin have come up with a novel concept for this emotionally disturbing opera, placing the action in a series of long, horizontal, bland white rooms. The stage area is completely boxed in with a black wall with a very long letter box opening revealing the playing area – a shallow stark white room with white vertical drapes along the back wall, a door on the right hand side wall and a water cooler in the left hand corner. The chamber ensemble consisting of a sting quintet with 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass playing out of view behind the stage. All this allows The Viewer to focus specifically on the drama and words. Surtitles were projected on the black wall above the letter box opening, but these were not needed due to the precise singing of the two singers and the excellent acoustics of the Parade Playhouse.
The opera has only two singers – The Visitor and The Officer. The Condemned Man and The Guard are actors and utter not a sound. Pascal Herrington, a tenor with wide experience currently studying for the Advanced Diploma of Opera at the Sydney Conservatorium, sang the role of the Visitor with great aplomb. His fine lyric voice easily negotiated the difficult vocal lines. He was able to convincingly colour his voice to suit the scene and mood, and clearly delineated the horror and conflict of his situation. He was similarly at ease with his acting and movement.
The other major role, The Officer, was sung by Paul Goodwin-Groen, an experienced bass who has a Masters in Theatre/Acting from Brandeis University in Boston, and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, the Britten-Pears School and the Ezio Pinza Foundation in Italy. He has a fine bass voice with a vibrant, rich tone and was a considerable asset to the work. However, his acting was unfortunately wooden and he lacked an ability to act with his voice, leaving the pivotal role of the obsessed and sadistic Officer a little bland, diminishing the dramatic reach of this marvellous work. In a work from the standard repertoire this would not be an issue, but this work really demands the very best of a singing actor to realise its full potential.
Anthony Hunt playing The Condemned Man was simply terrific. Wheeled into the room in a wheelchair with medical restraints attached, he produced an entirely believable Prisoner in ill health, beaten down and mentally crushed with a minimum of movement and striking composure.
The final major role in the work is the horrific and unseen Machine. The programmable instrument of prolonged torture that etches the human body with the list of their crimes and messages, then gift raps the lot with a decorative border over a period of 12 hours ! The Machine makes its first impression musically during the brief prelude before the prologue. As The Officer explains in horrific detail the history, design, construction and workings of The Machine, his lecture is illustrated by a video displayed on a remote controlled video screen that plays through most of the opera. The video, in glorious monochrome, features archival footage of various factories, machinery manufacture, working machine parts then finally human organs as the opera reaches it’s terrifying climax. When The Condemned Man is removed to be taken to the machine, the vertical drape is slowly moved partially to the side to reveal an identical room behind the first. The machine remains hidden behind the section of vertical drapes not moved aside. The horror of the machine is all in the mind of The Viewer watching the performance. In the final scene The Officer realises magnificent glory of The Machine, all his work and the legacy of the previous Commander all count for naught. He decides that it is a waste to use it on The Condemned Man and submits himself to its actions. As the machine breaks down and ends his torture prematurely, a gush of blue fluid is sprayed over the glass wall between the observation and torture rooms and over the observing Condemned Man who remains motionless and emotionless. I am not sure whether the blue liquid was supposed to be blood or ink from the machine – but my dramatic senses tell me that blood would have been much more effective as well as some sound effects for The Machine.
The Chamber Ensemble, made up of young string instrumentalists made a remarkable contribution to the work. Sound balance between the singers and string quintet was surprisingly in favour of the strings, which seemed unusual with them placed behind the set and stage. Glass’ long phrases pulsed and throbbed, rising and falling with various subtle rhythmic changes producing an amazing escalating tension in the piece. This subtlety was not always obtained by the group proving Glass is not as easy to play and deliver as its simplicity suggests. With such a small ensemble, any individual glitches stick out like a thumb, and some minor intonation problems, lack of rhythmic cohesion, lack of dynamic variation were minor problems. Some scratchiness in the string playing may have been intentional for musical drama. Despite these minor quibbles, the string quintet gave us an excellent impression of Glass’ fantastic musical world.
IN THE PENAL COLONY proved to be yet another phenomenal success for the relatively new, edgy and vibrant Sydney Chamber Opera. Long may they flourish and deliver such fascinating and challenging works as this. The notion of Glass composing an opera based on a Kafka story is a marriage made in heaven. Glass’ music adds an incredible spell-binding dimension and tension to the Kafka story, which was well served by this production.
The Artistic Director of Sydney Chamber Opera, Louis Garrick has stated ”The question of whether to intervene or not to intervene is so important to world politics today – look at Iraq and there are many more examples of that in international relations and when you overlay that with the themes of execution and torture its very relevant to today.”
Indeed so !
Last nights performance at the Parade Playhouse was relatively full. Don’t miss out on this extraordinary work and production. 3 Performances are left on the 11th, 13th and 14th April.