What little gilt and glitter remained from the company’s recent La Boheme, Boston Lyric Opera stripped away through a unique and somewhat grotesque Opera Annex experiment in Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony. The composer’s harrowing “pocket opera” (one act of 80 minutes, cast of three) opened on the massive stage of the Cyclorama on Wednesday night.
The production took full advantage of the immersive possibilities offered by the 360 degree industrial visual environment, the vast dome soaring above the stage. Kafka’s original story, and the opera’s libretto, take place on a sweltering tropical island, but this penal colony was visually frigid. JAX Messenger’s lighting was harsh and fluorescent, Julia Noulin-Merat’s sets as stark and minimalist as Glass’s score. The musicians played in shapeless gray jumpsuits. Former Boston Ballet principal dancer Yuri Yanowsky, as the Condemned Man, had his bald head caked in chunky pale gray makeup, and the commander’s heavy wool uniform was replaced by a blood-red space suit and platform boots—thus transplanting the setting to a remote asteroid.
The outstanding pair of Neal Ferreira (Visitor) and David McFerrin (Officer) carried the show. Ferreira, as the foreigner who attends an execution “as a courtesy,” maintained a controlled quaver in his ringing tenor voice for the first portion of the opera. In his notes, stage director R. B. Schlather outlined how Edward Snowden inspired the production’s vision of the Visitor. Barefoot, in a white tee shirt and glasses, Ferreira made a convincing visual doppelgänger for the whistleblower. He slouched across the stage with wide-eyed terror, contorting and stumbling as if he was unused to the gravity, his face visibly agonized as he contemplated the inhumane killing machine (which did not appear).
David McFerrin drilled through the Officer’s cinderblock vocal lines with unflinching conviction. The character was at first entirely emotionless and official, standing ramrod straight, but the Officer’’s stunted, sadomasochistic psyche gradually exposed itself as McFerrin removed the layers of his space suit. Glowing with an unquestioning and disturbing adoration, he sang of the executions he’d witnessed under the old commander, and the ecstatic revelations of the naked, dying men. As he realized that the Visitor was not going to help him carry out the execution after the machine broke, his voice took on notes of frightening desperation without losing an ounce of strength. He sang from increasingly closer to the ground as his world collapsed, the supertitles above the stage flashing and fragmenting. In contrast, Ferreira stood up straighter and straighter, eventually striding off the stage to his awaiting ship with confidence.
Yanowsky’s skills as a dancer were underutilized; he moved with fluid, cat-like grace through the skeletal set for a few brief moments, but more often he was sitting still, a meditative statue. One of the most dramatic moments in the score inexplicably had Yanowsky running laps around the stage. The string quintet under the baton of Ryan Turner made a hearty effort to draw larger shapes from Glass’s rigorously repetitive phrases, but awkwardness in the blocking and choreography continued to distract. Many of the passages without singing felt bloated, despite the deft and lean playing.
The killing machine existed only in the descriptions of the singers, the musical illustrations of Glass’s score, and the imaginations of the audience—one in this day no doubt inured to the automatization of death. With so few characters on stage, the audience serves as a silent chorus of complicit observers to the execution. Justice is done as the fatal, corrective-message-engraving needles of the system the Officer sought to protect kill him quickly and gracelessly, but he is not a standard operatic villain. He dies without triumph or catharsis, and the Visitor flees to his ship.
To what extent can fanaticism penetrate? What will be the new standard of justice, and what new machines will administer it? The opera’s final scene demands our attention and answers, and that is why operas like this are necessary. They force us to answer looming, relevant questions that some would turn to the arts to escape.