Philip Glass, bless his heart, keeps turning out operas, and with a couple of near-misses, they’re among the best in the contemporary canon. In the Penal Colony takes as its foundation Franz Kafka’s chilling short story of the same title.
The story describes the execution planned for one of the prisoners, who has no idea what he did, or even who he is. There is a Visitor, who has come to witness the execution at the request of the new Commander of the Penal Colony. The execution is to be accomplished by a machine; this machine has always been used, and the Officer who is to oversee the proceedings considers that this is the traditional way, the only way, that this purpose can be accomplished. The new Commander has some new, and to the Officer radical, ideas. The Officer describes the process in great and loving detail to the Visitor, who is initially somewhat removed from the whole thing, but becomes more and more disturbed as story progresses.
As might be expected, Kafka’s story is an allegory. While at first it might be taken as a commentary on capital punishment, it is through the officer’s explication of the details of the process that it takes on a larger dimension — the machine, through its operation and the torture it inflicts on the condemned, provides, in the Officer’s mind, the opportunity for full realization of the crime and the possibility of true redemption of the condemned. One can quite legitimately take the story as an exploration, as some have done, issues of idealism, tradition, and transformation.
Or, one can take it as a commentary on the idea of the meaning of “humanity.” The irony implicit in the fact that, in this instance at least, the condemned man has no idea what his transgression was, or even a firm grasp on who he is, is lost on the Officer. Kafka, and Glass, are coming at the question from two sides, exemplified by the Officer and the condemned man, who have lost their humanity in different senses and for different reasons.
Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto is fairly straightforward — the Officer is quite open in his need to preserve the old ways, his distrust of the new Commander, and his desire to enlist the Visitor as, if not an ally, then a neutral party. It’s this openness on the part of the Officer that truly illuminates what an extremist he is in his desire to preserve his traditions.
The music itself provides the drama that the text does not. The opening section, “The Machine,” serves to remove the scene from space and time, being no more than a thirty-second pedal note leading into the Prologue, a suitably foreboding section introduced on the low strings that builds into a melancholy theme, extended by the rest of the ensemble. Interestingly enough, the music takes on an almost baroque quality, especially in the early scenes — Glass’ characteristic hurried rhythms and rapid instrumental parts begin to echo Scarlatti or Bach. And there are passages throughout that partake of a kind of lyricism in marked contrast to the text. Given that contrast, I think it’s legitimate to say that in Glass’ hands, In the Penal Colony becomes as much a psychological drama as anything else.
This recording was based on the 2010 production by the Music Theatre Wales. Personnel: Michael Bennett, tenor; Omar Ebrahim, baritone; Miranda Fulleylove, Philippa Mo, violins; Gustave Clarkson, viola; Chris Allan, cello; Kenneth Knussen, double bass; Michael Rafferty, cond.
(Orange Mountain Music, 2010)