Philip Glass continues to produce works of brilliance maintaining his preference for the minimalist tradition of writing. In 2000 he composed IN THE PENAL COLONY based on the Franz Kafka's 1914 short story and elected to create a chamber opera with minimal forces, a thought and technique that makes this rather brief opera all the more sensitive in its immediacy to the audience of a small theater. The work is written for string quintet with electronic noises - a piece very demanding for the performers. The opera is limited to a quartet of voices. This very tight compositional technique creates a sense of uncomfortable proximity and credibility to the harrowing story of the libretto: the impact on the audience (in theater or at home) is immense.
In brief, the story describes an execution planned for one of the prisoners of the "colony" for which and up until then, an execution machine has been routinely used. The material itself is allegorical, and though at first the story appears to address the question of capital punishment, in fact Kafka uses it as a platform to explore, extensively and poetically, issues of humanism, idealism, and transfiguration. The two protagonists, the commander of the colony and the visitor, are written for a baritone and a tenor or bass and tenor respectively. In addition, there are 2 speaking roles, a prisoner and a guard.
The story focuses on the Explorer, who is encountering the brutal machine for the first time. Everything about the machine and its purpose is told to him by the Officer, while the Soldier and the Condemned (who is unaware that he has been sentenced to die) placidly watch nearby. The Officer tells of the religious epiphany the executed experience in their last six hours in the machine. Eventually it becomes clear that the use of the machine, and its associated process of justice where the accused is always instantly found guilty, has fallen out of favor with the current Commandant. The Officer is nostalgic regarding the torture machine and the values that were initially associated with it. As the last proponent of the machine, he strongly believes in its form of justice and the infallibility of the previous Commandant, who designed and built the device. In fact, the Officer carries its blueprints with him and is the only person who can properly decipher them; no one else is allowed to handle these documents. The Officer begs the Explorer to speak to the current Commandant on behalf of the machine's continued use. He refuses to do so, although he says he will not speak against it and will leave before he can be called to give an official account. The Officer realizes that this will be the machine's last use; he frees the Condemned and sets up the machine for himself, with the words "Be Just" to be written on him. However, the machine malfunctions due to its advanced state of disrepair; instead of its usual elegant operation, it quickly stabs the Officer to death, denying him the mystical experience of the prisoners he executed. Accompanied by the Soldier and the Condemned, the Explorer makes his way to a tea house in which he is shown the grave of the old Commandant. Its stone is set so low that a table can easily be placed over it; the inscription states his followers' belief that he will rise from the dead someday and take control of the colony once more. As the Explorer prepares to leave by boat, the Soldier and the Condemned try to board but are repelled by the Explorer himself. In the Penal Colony describes the last use of an elaborate torture and execution device that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin in a script before letting him die, all in the course of twelve hours. As the plot unfolds, the reader learns more and more about the machine, including its origin, and original justification.
The Music Theater of Wales is conducted by Michael Rafferty, and only a quintet drawn from the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble - Miranda Fulleylove, Philippa Mo (violins), Gustav Clarkson (viola), Chris Allan (cello) and Kenneth Knussen (double bass) perform. Baritone Omar Ebrahim is The Officer and tenor Michael Bennett is The Visitor. The Priisoner and the Guard are speaking parts. The performances from all concerned are excellent and under the complete supervision of Philip Glass. For those who love the works of Philip Glass this is an extraordinary opportunity. The music and the libretto are well wedded. Grady Harp, July 12