A neglected Glass opera grows in Brooklyn with “In the Penal Colony"
by Sean Piccoli
Matt Boehler (left) and Jason Papowitz in Philip Glass's opera "In the Penal Colony," presented by American Opera Projects and String Orchestra Brooklyn. Photo: Gerry Goodstein
A short, unsettling story by Franz Kafka provides both source material and title for In the Penal Colony, Philip Glass’s 2000 opera presented by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn and American Opera Projects.
The story is vintage Kafka — an allegory of the opaque, all-powerful state, wherein detention and punishment are devoid of due process or reason. The timing of these performances is undeniably apt, given the ongoing debate about U.S. methods in the war against radical Islamists.
Glass’s exploration of Kafka, undertaken a year prior to 9-11, is more than topical. The two share a similar aesthetic and existential ground; a sense of the unreal pervades the author’s sinister tales as well as the composer’s hypnotic, abstracted music.
The match was mixed, however, at this celebration of Glass’s upcoming 75th birthday heard Saturday night at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church. Although sung and played quite beautifully in places, the 80-minute work took considerable time finding its rhythm and internal rapport.
Billed in the program as “a semi-staged performance,” In the Penal Colony also felt underproduced, even in the splendid venue.
The images and ideas in play here don’t require costumes and costly props — and there were none — but they demand more visual imagination than the bare-bones treatment received.