Philip Glass: In The Penal Colony (2000). A Contemporary Theatre. Falls Theatre, Seattle, Wa. Sept 17, 2000 (world premiere).
Philip Glass has written about 20 operas in the last 25 years. These have ranged from the epic Einstein On The Beach (1975-76), Satyagraha (1980), and Akhnaten (1984), to chamber operas like his Cocteau trilogy, and the very impressive but seldom US-produced Fall Of The House Of Usher (1988), which one might call bite-size Glass, in terms of length if not ambition.The composer's latest was done in collaboration with director JoAnne Akalaitis with whom he's worked repeatedly -- they co-founded Mabou Mines -- and some of their most famous efforts are theatre pieces by modernst masters like Genet and Beckett. Glass has written that "what has always stirred me is theater which challenges one's ideas of society, one's notions of order." Genet and Beckett certainly did that and so did Brecht, and Franz Kafka. Glass' new "opera theatre work" In The Penal Colony is a pretty faithful translation of Kafka's long short story of the same name which was written in 1914 and published 5 years later. The Czech author's thoroughgoing use of allegory makes it susceptible to a variety of interpretations. It happens on an island but we're never told where or when , and though both dialog and action are minutely set forth it's also mysterious and intangible like a dream, which suits Glass to a tee, because his work happens in an expanded sort of dream time.And that's certainly the case here. We may not be sure where we are, but the sensations the music evokes are palpable and definitely real.
In The Penal Colony is written for 2 singers -- tenor and baritone -- 1 speaking actor , 2 non-speaking ones and an unamplified string quintet, and it lasts 80 minutes, and adding anything else would have blunted its power. And though the subject matter is severe -- a condemned man will be executed in a 12 hour span by the Harrow which inscribes his offense on his body with tiny needles -- Glass' musical setting never falls prey to overheated expressionist cliche -- no sudden sforzandi or outsize climaxes compromise its expressive balance. And the singers, thankfully, never have to shout or bark their lines. This is a play, yes, but one with the added dimension of music, and writing a series of arias for tenor John Duykers, who plays the visitor, and baritone Herbert Parry, who sings the part of the officer ( his brother Eugene is doubling the role) would impede its progress.
Glass' score combines drama and meditation in equal measure. The piece begins innocently enough with double bass, cello and viola playing a simple, mournful phrase, after which the first and second violins join in. And, as in any opera since Wagner, the orchestra has the heft of the drama, and the quintet's starkly beautiful music participates, comes forward, recedes, comments and remembers -- the opening as so often in Glass gets a partial -- and transfigured -- recap at the end. Colony is all of a piece with Glass' string quartet writing , especially that of No. 3 (Buczak) and No. 6 (Dracula), with sometimes startling but entirely apposite harmonies, and moments where harmonics, unison scales and contrary motion function effectively as pure music, and also effectively convey tenderness, terror, fear and ambivalence.The quintet accompanies and/or contrasts with the vocal writing which has the character of heightened though still very conversational recitative, the only part approaching a flat-out aria being the visitor's final speech where he reports the officer's death by the machine.
Akalaitis adds to the surreal tone of the story by including actor Jose Gonzalez as Kafka, who's dressed here like a young version of the author in a severe suit, white, round-collared shirt and tie, and speaks lines from his diaries in a cultured Mittel Europa accent. Far from being a mere literary conceit he also sometimes takes part in the action, especially in one particularly stunning moment where he helps the officer undress himself for his death, long sash unfurling. Akalaitis has also devised odd but effective movements for the cast, and her blocking creates vivid stage pictures. She's immensely aided by Rudy Wurlitzer's expert script which has the fluidity of one for a film (he did Bertolucci's Little Buddha) , and cannily compresses and dramatizes Kafka's original text,it also strengthens the visitor's role so that he doesn't seem such a wuss. Set designer John Conklin's torture machine is forebodingly veiled and luridly revealed by Jennifer Tipton's lighting, and Susan Hilferty's period costumes are both handsome and evocative -- even the Metropolitan String Ensemble of Seattle -- Tom Dziekonski(violin 1), Carlos Flores (violin 2), Michael Lieberman(viola), Virginia Dziekonski(cello) and Todd Gowers(bass) are elegantly dressed and seated on a platform upper stage left, which may be a reference to the musicians who played for officers in the death camps. Steven M. Levine and Matt Seidman made strong impressions as the soldier and the condemned man, and Glass' 2 singers sang with accuracy and conviction. In The Penal Colony has been variously interpreted as an indictment of capital punishment, a parable of social responsibility and a study in obsession. Glass and his collaborators wisely leave these questions open. Theater, after all, should challenge one's ideas of society and order. The production moves on to Chicago's Court Theatre where it will run from 11 November to 10 December. But I doubt that seeing it there will be half so involving as seeing it at ACT's non-proscenium Falls where you could take it in from all angles at once.