PenalPhilip Glass - In The Penal Colony

Armel Opera Festival, Szeged, Hungary 2012 | Petr Kofroň, Viktorie Čermáková, Jiři Hájek, Miroslav Kopp, Dominik Peřina, David Steigerwald, Nikola Pažoutová, Eva Rovenska, Andrea Svobodová, Antonín Kaška, Petr Brettschneider | Internet streaming - ARTE Live Web, 10 October 2012

In The Penal Colony derives from an interesting strand of Philip Glass’s wide and successful range of popular musical ventures that take in soundtracks and theatre music as well as more traditional classical forms of operas, symphonies and concertos. Written in 2000 and scored for a string quintet, In The Penal Colony - based on the short story by Franz Kafka - sits in that indeterminate category of the composer’s music that lies somewhere between theatre music and chamber opera, one that takes in scores composed for films with existing soundtracks (Tod Browning’s Dracula), his Cocteau soundtracks and operas (Les Enfants Terribles, La Belle et la Bête), and actual theatre music, of which Kafka’s Metamorphosis is already one of Glass’s best known and much quoted works, used as incidental music on countless television ads, documentaries and trailers.

Requiring only five musicians and two singers, a single act opera running to only 90 minutes in length - even more minimalist than usual for a minimalist composer - In The Penal Colony’s structural composition and the tone of its repetitive rhythms is nonetheless an arrangement that is perfectly suited to the ambience and ambiguity of one of Kafka’s most unsettling and enigmatic works. On the one hand, it exposes the irrational and unquestioning respect the individual has for authority, as a Foreign Visitor accepts an invitation to visit a penal colony, despite having no particular interest in going there, since it would appear rude not to accept the invitation of the camp’s Commandant. This is also tied into the likewise irrational concepts of nationality and the pride for one’s home country - “Who would we be, where would we be if we forget where we come from” - an attitude that gives the state the authority to wage war or carry out executions on one’s behalf such as the one about to be performed on one prisoner at the penal colony.

The visitor is expected to be impressed with the ruthless efficiency of the machine constructed by the former commandant at the colony, an apparatus with a harrow of sharp needles that will carve the words of the prisoner’s crime into his bound naked body - the immortal words of warning to all who disobey the laws of the land created by people better than ourselves - “Honour thy Superiors”. Being Kafka, the prisoner, of course, is allowed no defence and hasn’t even been informed of the crime he is supposed to have committed. He’s characterised as dog-like and, if left to roam the hills, likely to come back when whistled to face his execution. Being Kafka, the allegorical work is also about far more than just an exploration of the inhumanity of capital punishment, or indeed beyond even any simplistic attempts to associate it alongside other such equally complex longer works such as The Castle or The Trial as being about the individual being crushed by oppressive authority, faceless bureaucracy and uncaring governance, but it takes in some very personal responses of the author to his own position - particularly his relationship with his father - while also touching on so many other dark human characteristics, fears, responses and impulses relating to power, submission, humiliation and, of course, dehumanisation.

What’s marvellous about Philip Glass’s scoring of the In The Penal Colony, is that it works hand-in-hand with the simplicity of the surface relating of the story through its repetitive rhythms, while using the subtle variations of tone that can be detected in the clear transparency of the instruments and the playing of the small musical ensemble to suggest those other nuances. Any kind of larger operatic scoring would surely be overbearing and overemphatic when set to Kafka’s ideas, and Petr Kofroň, directing the chamber orchestra of the Josef Kajetan Tyl Theatre Opera of Pilsen in the Czech Republic (who better to interpret Kafka than a Czech ensemble?), clearly seems to be aware of this. The overall production - directed by Viktorie Čermáková - and the performance of the musicians are excellent in this respect, engaging the interest of the audience in the absurd but very real horror of Kafka’s dark parable through simple touches that show how important interpretation is for an opera than requires more than just the mere mechanical reproduction of simple rhythms.

It’s a work then that, for all the difficulties of characterisation that the absurd story represents, calls on a degree of interpretative skill from the singers as well as the musicians to make all the various levels that it works on meaningful. The Armel Opera Festival contestant involved here, baritone Jiři Hájek singing the role of the officer or commandant, certainly had every assistance from the production and the musicians and sang the role exceptionally well, if he was perhaps a little stiff and inexpressive in his performance. Unfortunately, particularly for a work that only has two singing parts, he wasn’t well supported by the tenor Miroslav Kopp as the Foreign Visitor, who in addition to struggling with English diction also strained to sustain notes and their pitch. This however was overall a fine production and performance of an intriguing work that worked incredibly well on the stage as an opera, opening up its myriad complexities and infinite meaning.

The Armel Opera Festival production of In The Penal Colony is currently available to view on-line from the ARTE Live Web site.