On a weekend when it felt more like being bizarrely swamped in a poodle colony - the seaside town of Carmel was in the midst of its Annual Poodle Day - Philip Glass’ In the Penal Colony took the stage at the intimate Golden Bough Playhouse. For me, it was an experience of many firsts, including my first visit to the pretty town of Carmel, of Glass’ one-act chamber opera and of San Francisco-based Opera Parallèle who presented the work as part of the local Days and Nights Festival.
The opera premiered in 2000 in Seattle and is based on Franz Kafka’s rather macabre and haunting short story, first published in 1919. Themes of justice and capital punishment, of cultural interference and ruthless determination against change are at its core. In director and concept designer Brian Staufenbiel’s interpretation, these themes resonate clearly in an oppressive, dark and claustrophobic world where there is no room for wrongdoing against the order. Questions are passively raised and answers aren’t so straightforward.
|Robert Orth as The Officer and Javier Abreu as The Visitor|
Glass’ characteristic repeating and alternating rhythms fill the score and perform their hypnotic effect with eeriness and ease via a small string quintet to the right of the broad stage. Nicole Paiement conducted with passion, intensity and untiring precision, in itself a fascinating performance to watch as she brought bursts of mechanical beauty to her form and elicited unblemished playing from her musicians.
The story encompasses both The Visitor and The Officer’s perspective and these two characters are the only sung roles. On this occasion, the physical characteristics of the two added contrast and weight to the vocal types that each are assigned. Dressed for the tropics in the time of the story’s early 20th century setting in a light-hued suit as The Visitor (costumes by Daniel Harvey), Javier Abreu’s distinguished tenor shone with a warmth and humanity that accompanied his sympathetic air. In contrast to Abreu’s younger appearance and shorter, stocky build, as The Officer, the older, towering figure of Robert Orth embodied the role superbly, bringing a somewhat faded heroic air and brawny pride with his deep and grainy baritone. Dressed in heavy military attire in a symbol of neither forgetting the homeland nor tradition but inappropriate for the tropical climate of its undisclosed setting, Orth’s ongoing measured and chilling delivery were pivotal in maintaining the darkness and tension in the work.
In the silent role of The Prisoner, who never has a chance to defend himself and is unaware of his sentence, Michael Mohammed was convincing as the agonised and beaten down man. Incorporating the effective use of a stage revolve, Staufenbiel cleverly makes him the focus from the beginning. From under a ghostly veiled rock-like form, The Prisoner appears as if objectified. In the loyal service of The Officer as The Soldier, David Poznanter never held back on depicting the brutality of the regime.
Staufenbiel spread and divided the action to great effect and his design concept responds to the gloomy nature of the piece with a sense of confinement achieved by high black walls. Fractured openings become a screen for projected images that include the outside world with its lush green setting as well as the Old Commander’s creepy ‘portrait’ and the execution contraption. A small quibble but the actual machine - a raised bed of rollers with side bracket to lower a harrow - looked the sinister part but operated rather clumsily. Kevin Landesman’s lighting was perfectly moody.
As much as Glass’ music writhes, weeps and grinds magnificently for around 80 minutes, Wurlitzer’s libretto could do with some tightening and reduction. Nevertheless, there’s a peculiar time warp and a state of distance the work creates that is both potent and powerful and that doesn’t end even after The Visitor cuts short his stay and departs the island. Kudos to Opera Parallèle for giving it deserved resonance.
In the Penal Colony
Golden Bough Playhouse, Carmel CA
Until 7th October, 2018