Michael Rafferty

Philip Glass: In the Penal Colony

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Among the dramatic works of Philip Glass, it is the experimental Einstein on the Beach and perhaps Satyagraha that continue to attract attention. In later works, Glass turned his attention to conventional storytelling and adapted his musical language to its exigencies. These works may be less sexy than those that satisfy high-culture-industry demands for novelty, but the continuing popularity of Glass' music with ordinary concert audiences is partly due to developments in his musical language that were worked out in pieces like the opera In the Penal Colony (2000). The two-vocal-role chamber opera is based on a story by Franz Kafka (perhaps the inspiration for the Harry Potter books' Blood Quill) about a torture device that kills condemned prisoners by writing words with a harrow into the skin of their backs. Glass' musical language here, rendered by a string quintet (first violin to double bass), is immediately identifiable and is unadorned by electronics. The arpeggios based on open chords, the slow rate of harmonic change, the static dynamics, and all the other Glass trademarks are here. Yet this is not a "minimalist opera." Librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer remains faithful to the grim outlines of Kafka's story, with its premonitions of observers who are gripped by passivity in the face of the 20th century's horrors. And Glass gives his language direct dramatic impact. The Visitor who observes the device and the Commander who is nostalgic for the days in which families would be invited to watch it in action both emerge as fully realized individuals, with plenty of room for singers Michael Bennett and Omar Ebrahim to stretch out in the roles. Bennett's dry tenor is especially effective. The recording is based on a 2010 production of the opera by the Music Theatre of Wales, and its realization by conductor Michael Rafferty has a fine sense of immediacy. Glass' Orange Mountain Music label has been a careful steward of the composer's growing legacy, and the clarity here almost makes the libretto enclosed in the CD release unnecessary. Strongly recommended.

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