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Dystopia 'In The Penal Colony'

By Trevor J. Levin, Contributing Writer

In its Nov. 11-15 production of Philip Glass’s “In the Penal Colony,” the Boston Lyric Opera performed a show as memorable and distinctively Kafkaesque as the short story on which it was based. Fully embracing Glass’s minimalism, stage director R.B. Schlather created spellbinding, extreme visuals and a sense of futuristic horror, aided by the haunting performances of the show’s two singing characters. Provocatively exploring issues of justice, torture, tradition, and authority in its 90 minutes, “In the Penal Colony” was modern opera at its finest: tense, daring, and darkly relevant.

In Glass’s opera, the Visitor (Neal Ferreira) is invited by the new commander of the titular European colony to attend the execution of a silent local known as the Man (Yury Yanowsky). The executioner, known as the Officer (David McFerrin), adores the “Apparatus” used in the colony’s executions. The horrifying device kills the prisoner by carving his charge into his flesh over the course of many hours, during which the prisoner supposedly experiences spiritual redemption. The Officer tells the Visitor that the new commander disapproves of the machine and everything it symbolizes: respect, tradition, and order. With an eerily familiar reactionary severity, he pleads with the Visitor to convince the commander of the merits of the Apparatus. But the Visitor, whom Ferreira gives a halting, frightened humanitarianism, is appalled by the Apparatus and demurs, saying he has no power and will not intervene. The Officer finds himself unable to live in a changing world and straps himself into the machine, but it malfunctions and kills him with “no sign of redemption.” Dark material, to be sure.

The BLO scarcely wasted a moment in heightening the horror. The actors took the stage to Glass’s bleak overture, one step per measure: first the Man, in some sort of tribal makeup; then the Officer, in a futuristic (and presumably very hot) orange rubber suit, with an astronaut-like helmet visor; then the Visitor, in an all-white costume, who began to sing, clutching the backdrop’s white walls. The actors were lit entirely from one side, creating shadows that extended completely across the extremely wide stage, which was unadorned save for a raised skeletal trapezoid that served as the Apparatus. The lights changed just a few times, always as harsh and simple as Glass’s signature ostinatos. The show’s staging flowed from the same distortion and detachment that underlie its plot for a powerful unity of purpose.

This unity extended to the acting and choreography. The Visitor moved with an affected twitch, at times looking as if yanked about the stage by a rope, mirroring his confusion and powerlessness. In this physicality, and in Ferreira’s Munchian horror, there may not have been much subtlety, but little was called for: “In the Penal Colony” painted in daring, strident strokes. In one striking moment, the Officer described the Apparatus’s process as the Visitor and the Condemned lay on either side of him, their tortured motions synchronized, underlining a recurring theme: that the Visitor, and the Western civilians he represents, ultimately have less in common with their own law enforcement and military than with the victims of the latter’s inhumanity.

The opera is scored for just two singers: a bass-baritone, the Officer, and a tenor, the Visitor. Both sang superbly, with no amplification (nor conventional melody) to guide them. McFerrin plunged into the depths of the bass clef with a forcefulness that matched his character’s matter-of-fact cruelty, and Ferreira’s climactic high notes were resplendent in anguish. Both singers, as well as the orchestra, conducted by Ryan Turner, performed with enough dynamism—and the play was so visually vivid—that the show sustained interest despite the repetitiveness of Glass’s instrumentation.

In the context of an overdue national conversation about our own criminal justice system, “In the Penal Colony” was not only artistically impressive but timely. When the Officer wistfully recalls his youth, during which the whole colony cheerfully gathered to watch the executions (children in front), or when the Visitor decides, as just one person unfamiliar with local customs, that he cannot publicly object to the Apparatus, “In the Penal Colony” made uncomfortably plain its parallels to the state-sponsored human rights abuses of our own world. The BLO’s production was the epitome of a brilliant vision masterfully executed. With a lens that powerful, it scorched what it studied.

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