Thursday, August 15, 2019

Portland Opera's "In the Penal Colony" kills it

Sean Doran as The Condemned Man, Martin Bakari as the Visitor, and Nathan H.G. as The Soldier in Portland Opera's new production of Philip Glass's In the Penal colony. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
Bleak, harrowing, and painful to watch, Portland Opera’s production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony was a compelling glimpse into hell. Based on a short story of the same name by Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony is a macabre tale set in a prison where a horrific machine is scheduled to kill an inmate. Directed by Jerry Mouawad and presented in the Studio Theatre in the Hampton Opera Center on August 3rd, Portland Opera’s performance made me squirm and want to look away, because it was as if I were viewing an execution.

Ryan Thorn as The Officer | Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
The intimate confines of the Studio Theatre put the audience uncomfortably close to the action in which a high-level visitor interacts with an officer at a penal colony somewhere in the tropics. The officer is proud of the execution machine, which can gradually kill a condemned prisoner, who has no idea of what he is guilty of. However, the machine malfunctions, and the prisoner is set free. Then the crazed officer takes his place and is killed. The libretto, by Rudolph Wurlitzer, was expertly to the point.

Written for a string quintet, Glass’s minimalist music and repetitive style expressed the story very well. Gnawing lines conveyed harshness and brutality. Edgy and motoric sounds suggested the machine. The multitude of dissonant tones aptly described the unjust spectrum of the situation. All was played with icy resolve by violinists Margaret Bichteler and Nelly Kovalev, violist Hillary Oseas, cellist Dkylan Rieck, and bassist David Parmeter under the baton of Nicholas Fox.

Martin Bakari deftly created the cautious and analytical role of The Visitor. Bakari’s lyrical tenor embraced his character’s curiosity and passiveness as when he declared that he opposed “the procedure” yet would not interfere. Ryan Thorn’s imposing baritone amplified The Officer’s conviction that he was fulfilling his commander’s orders. One of the most impressive moments when Thorn sang with steady conviction while his hands shook violently, imitating the harrowing teeth of machine.

In non-singing roles, Sean Doran excelled as The Condemned Man, and there was a collective sigh of relief in the hall when he ran off to freedom. Nathan H. G. was equally convincing as The Soldier, who must carry out orders even though he might not like them.
Ryan Thorn as The Officer and Martin Bakari as The Visitor | Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
In addition to directing, Mouawad designed the set, effectively using just a few props. A huge canvas cloth covered the floor. Suspended from the ceiling was another canvas cloth, decked with drawings to represent how the machine works. A large plexiglass window was lowered over a blood-soaked bed to give the sense of tattooing teeth.

Delivered in one act, In the Penal Colony was gripping and worthy of Kafka. But in the end, despite the terrific performance and the relevancy of the many serious topics touched on, I didn’t have the feeling that I would like to hear this opera again. That is interesting in light of the Glass’s statement (in the program notes) that “it’s the most performed opera that I’ve written.” There must be something innate that draws people to public executions.

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