In the penal colony
chamber opera by Philip Glass (Seattle 2000)
libretto Rudolph Wurlitzer from Kafka's In the penal colony, available here.
Stephen Owen - the officer
Stefano Ferrari - the visitor
Mathieu Morin - the convict (non singing part)
Philippe Forget, musical direction
Richard Brunel, staging
Quintette à cordes des musiciens de l'opéra de Lyon
Opéra de Lyon hors les murs
Studio Lumière 2, Villeurbanne
January 31, 2009
French premiere new prodution
Written for two singers (a baritone and a tenor), one speaking actor (the convict) and 2 non-speaking ones, In the penal colony lasts 80 minutes and is played by a string quintet (two violins, one alto, one cello and one double bass). The libretto, very close to Kafka's original words, is divided into 16 shorts scenes plus one epilogue. In an island converted into a surrealist prison, we follow the last 12 hours of a convict before his execution by the Harrow which inscribes his offense on his body with multiple needles.
The score Philip Glass composed is a well-balanced act that alternates between contemplative sections and very dramatic ones, complementing the story perfectly.
As for this French premiere run, it was originally scheduled at a real prison, but the suicide rate among convicts in France is so high at the moment the competent authorities thought it would be a bit too controversial to have this pamphlet in their own dirty backyard.
So instead, the Opéra de Lyon chose the Studio Lumière 2 (named after the world famous two lyonnais brothers) somewhere far far away from the city center, in a gloomy area (especially at night) perfect in the context.
The seats on the other hand could have been changed into something actually comfortable.
Mathieu Morin (left) as the convict (non singing role) was phenomenal, simply put. He really was the focus point on stage at all times, and his breathing was mesmorizing.
The two others non-singing roles, Gérald Robert-Tissot and Nicolas Hénault were clearly not on the same level, as their acting was relatively uninspired.
The staging of Richard Brunel, though filled with small good ideas (the musicians dressed as judges during the first scene especially), was overall radiating amateurism, and reminded me of my college years, when we used to have DIY productions with little money but "big" ideas. Coming from the Opéra de Lyon, I find this to be stingy at best. The conceptualization of the Harrow was especially clumsy and distractive.
I also question the will of the director to place the musicians on stage, because someone like me ends up spending half of the performance (maybe more) watching them instead of watching the actual action.
I reckon I was probably the only one doing that so extensively, but still. I was a bit afraid when I heard some not so perfect notes from alto Donald O'Neil in the first 20 bars or so, but the overall performance of the 5 musicians was no less than amazing.
They played with poise, finesse, sensibility, nuances and perfect unison, and all that without a conductor on stage. Some notes of the double bass were doubtful, but really, fantastic job from Nicolas Gourbeix (first violin of the Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon), Karol Miczka, Donald O'Neil, Jean-Marc Weibel and Cédric Cartier.
Stephen Owen (left) as the officer was also a sensation. His low notes were superb and his expressivity perfectly dosed. His acting skills are a bit limited, but his singing is clearly not.
Stefano Ferrari (the visitor) was less successful; he tried to mask the weakness of his high notes with a bigger sound and it did not work. He also had issues projecting his voice: in this small hall (200/300 people), he sang too loudly and without the proper restraint. His middle and lower register were fine, but he also overdid it with regards to his expressivity: then again not enough restraint, that sometimes led to ridicule.
All and all, if you have strong affinities (like myself) with Philip Glass, this was a great evening.
As I've already mentioned, Lyon is indeed a city in love with Philip Glass, and this run is sold out, even with the extra performance added to the schedule (Jan.27). Last two performances on Monday (Feb.2) and Wednesday (Feb.4).
Extra performance in Nîmes on March 4.
All pictures (except the first two) from the Opéra de Lyon