In the Penal Colony

With Satyagraha and Einstein on the Beach to his name, Philip Glass has participated in some excellent operatic projects. In the Penal Colony, his 2000 adaptation of Franz Kafka's well-known story to a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer, is not one of them. Glass's hastily scribbled score, which distributes clumsy, unidiomatic lines between tenor, baritone and string quintet, takes the dramatic tension and philosophical significance preserved in Wurlitzer's libretto and runs it through a mangle. The best that can be said is that it communicates, efficiently, the idea of punishment.

Glass's case, if he has one, isn't helped by Michael McCarthy's production for Music Theatre Wales, which represents the work's UK premiere. Singers and instrumentalists are both amplified, which may have been intended to take the strain off the voices, but doesn't. Omar Ebrahim and Michael Bennett do what they can for the obsessive Officer and agonized Visitor, both eclipsed by Gerald Tyler as the silent prisoner. Some of McCarthy's ideas are spot-on: the Visitor's writing table turns out to be the bed of the torture apparatus, thus putting centre-stage the ideas of writing, death and complicity at the heart of Kafka's story; at the same time, the equivalence between Officer and Prisoner is brought out well in both the costume and movement.

It is sometimes said that pain is simply ecstasy approached with the wrong requirements. The same is sometimes also said of boredom. Both ideas are germane to Kafka's story, but Glass's opera concerns itself more with the latter proposition – which, in a mere 80 minutes, it proves quite wrong. Boredom, however you approach it, really is quite boring.

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