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Boston Lyric Opera's 'In The Penal Colony' Is A Harrowing Story That's Worth Hearing

Yury Yanowsky lay prone and exhausted in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ “In the Penal Colony.” (T. Charles Erickson/Boston Lyric Opera)
Yury Yanowsky lay prone and exhausted in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ “In the Penal Colony.” (T. Charles Erickson/Boston Lyric Opera)
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What composer could be more suited than Philip Glass to write music for an opera based on Franz Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony”? Aren’t his endlessly repetitive notes an aural equivalent of the thousands of needles in the torture machine that inscribe the crime of the victim into his flesh?

Boston Lyric Opera, in its Opera Annex series, has just mounted Glass’s 15-year-old opera based on Kafka’s literally harrowing story, and if I have any reservation about the music it’s that if anything, it’s not as harrowing as it could be. Still, it’s worth hearing. Performances continue through Sunday, Nov. 15, in a remarkable venue, the Cyclorama building at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Glass’s librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer has stuck pretty close to the original story; stage director R.B. Schlather less so. In the story, a visitor, in the translation I have he’s called an explorer, has been invited to observe a tropical penal colony. An officer, the deputy of the former commander of the colony, is carrying out an execution. A soldier has fallen asleep on his watch, and to pay for his insubordination, he will be strapped into the machine for 12 hours, at the end of which a spike will pierce his head. The victim is neither informed of his crime nor of his punishment. Kafka’s victim is a schlump, a mildly curious ignoramus who doesn’t even speak the language of the colony.

From top, Yury Yanowsky, Neal Ferreira and David McFerrin in Boston Lyric Opera’s “In the Penal Colony.” (T. Charles Erickson/Boston Lyric Opera)
From top, Yury Yanowsky, Neal Ferreira and David McFerrin in Boston Lyric Opera’s “In the Penal Colony.” (T. Charles Erickson/Boston Lyric Opera)

The officer is concerned that the machine is falling apart, its workings neglected by the new commander, who may be unsympathetic to the entire process. In the old days, these executions drew crowds. Children were offered especially good views. But recent audiences have dwindled to nothing. The visitor is a blank, a neutral, who doesn’t want to get involved, and who doesn’t reveal how appalled he really is until the officer, who convinces himself that his guest is entirely on his side, requests his help in convincing the new commander to spruce up the machine. When the visitor refuses, the officer releases the prisoner and submits himself to the decrepit machine.

In this production, though perhaps not indicated in the libretto, the victim — as played by former Boston Ballet dancer Yury Yanowsky — is no schlump. In a floor-length black skirt and naked above the waste, his face covered in white makeup, Yanowsky is a dynamic and glamorous figure who moves with power and purpose in and out and around the abstract jungle gym-like sculpture that suggests the machine. Who but a brilliant dancer could run breathtakingly around and around in a circle as Yanowsky does at one point? Nothing like Kafka’s image of a victim.

Schlather says he decided not to have a literal machine and that he wanted to suggest a minimalist art installation, suggesting, as he writes in his program note, to the Cyclorama’s origins as an art gallery. While this space has been used to exhibit art in recent years, it was actually built, in 1884, to house a diorama of the battle of Gettysburg. It was later used for bicycle races, and from 1923-1970, it was the home of the Boston flower market. In 1971, Sarah Caldwell used it for one of her most inspired opera productions, Gustave Charpentier’s "Louise," in which she turned the whole Cyclorama into a giant carousel during a dazzling street festival in Montmartre.

So the victim in "In the Penal Colony" is now a muscular, hunky dancer. And the visitor, barefoot, in white T-shirt and jogging pants, is, Schlather says, suggested by Edward Snowden. And rather than keeping his emotional distance, as the visitor/explorer does in Kafka, tenor Neal Ferreira seems to be a figure constantly buffeted by the revelations of the officer — writhing and spinning, doing somersaults and leaping onto and off the machine. To demonstrate how the punishment works, the officer draws it with his finger on the visitor’s prone body. Schlather seems to want to depict the effect all this information has on the visitor’s psyche. “It is just!” the visitor exclaims at the final collapse of the officer, raising his fist. I find Kafka’s chilliness more horrifying.

David McFerrin threatens Yury Yanowsky in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Philip Glass’s “In the Penal Colony.” (T. Charles Erickson/Boston Lyric Opera)
David McFerrin threatens Yury Yanowsky in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Philip Glass’s “In the Penal Colony.” (T. Charles Erickson/Boston Lyric Opera)

The officer, baritone David McFerrin in a blood red hazmat suit, is probably the closest this production gets to Kafka. He’s someone totally convinced of the rightness of the old ways, the Old Regime (or is it the Old Testament?) — more than just following orders, he indulges in them. He tells the visitor that watching the execution almost tempts one to want to join the victim under the harrow. In this production, though, he seems less desperate than Kafka’s officer, as if he were already defeated.

At several points all three characters seem to be bonding. The officer’s attitude toward the visitor is here fairly explicitly homoerotic. Stripped down to his long johns, he ends up on the platform on top of the machine shivering uncontrollably — a hair-raising image of the machine doing its deadly work. And as in the original story, Glass and Wurlitzer see no transcendence for him, no redemption, through his suffering.

One of my favorite touches (I think this was deliberate), is that when the machine breaks down, so do the supertitles, which never quite recover (at least, they didn’t on opening night). Lighting designer JAX Messenger, with his startling use of fluorescent lighting and the shadows that creates, was another of the production’s heroes.

At the end, Yanowsky, sitting on the prison-yard wall, breaks his silence and proclaims: “The old commander is buried here!” And the visitor concludes: “Have faith and abide,” which makes less sense than in Kafka, where these words are the ironic inscription on the old commander’s grave. And Kafka ends his story with the visitor boarding a ferry and beating off the victim who is trying to escape the colony.

Yury Yanowsky, Neal Ferreira and David McFerrin in “In the Penal Colony.” (T. Charles Erickson/Boston Lyric Opera)
Yury Yanowsky, Neal Ferreira and David McFerrin in “In the Penal Colony.” (T. Charles Erickson/Boston Lyric Opera)

Ferreira and McFerrin are excellent. Everything that was done to make the Cyclorama more acoustically alive to opera (including seat mats handed out to the members of the audience) surely helped the singers project such impeccable diction.

Glass’s minimalism doesn’t allow much for the expression of character, but here the almost sentimental vocal lines for the officer heighten the sense that he is living in an unreal past. For the most part, the music doesn’t interfere with natural speech rhythms, but not all of the text is felicitously set, and the relentless rhythms force some of the wrong words to be accented. But the relentless chugging away, the repeated alternation of two notes and triplets, faster and slower, higher and lower, brighter and darker, at least seem to be more purposeful than usual for Glass.

Emmanuel Music's Ryan Turner, who conducted a single performance for the BLO of last year’s Opera Annex opera, Frank Martin’s "The Love Potion," led with a clear-eyed understanding of Glass’s shifts in rhythm and dynamics. His pacing, and the superb instrumental ensemble, a string quintet (string quartet plus bass), made the music more riveting than monotonous.

Boston Lyric Opera is in search of a new and (we hope) better home than the Shubert Theatre. Here once again, the fascinating outlying venue and interesting repertoire for its Opera Annex productions prove to be the company’s most compelling choices.


Lloyd Schwartz is a music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and Senior Editor of Classical Music for New York Arts. Longtime Classical Music Editor of The Boston Phoenix, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1994. He is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @LloydSchwartz

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