Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" is one of his darkest stories. A visitor to a colonial island is invited to witness an execution through the most gruesome of methods. A man will be gagged and strapped to a machine. Countless needles will inscribe his crime — about which he is completely ignorant — deeper and deeper into his skin until, over a process of hours, he is supposed to die.
Written in 1914, the story sounds uncannily prophetic notes about the mechanization of death, the bureaucratization of terror, and the arbitrariness of a legal code based on the central principle that "guilt is always beyond doubt."
In this story, as in so much of his work, Kafka's lapidary prose style may be said to be almost anti-musical. We do not listen for melody in the rise and fall of his sentences, or find echoes of music in the poetry of his images. Yet given Kafka's centrality to the 20th century, and the haunting fable-like quality of his stories, it's hardly surprising that many contemporary composers have turned to him. That list would include Poul Ruders, Gyorgy Kurtag, and, most saliently for this week in the Boston opera world, Philip Glass.
A new production of Glass's "In the Penal Colony," with a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer adapted from Kafka's original, opened on Wednesday night at the Cyclorama. It is being presented by Boston Lyric Opera as its annual off-site production.
In recent years, these yearly "Opera Annex" forays away from the company's home at the Shubert Theater have delivered some of BLO's most memorable moments. This newest production will be counted as another in its column of successes. Some details of the austere, abstract, and stylized staging by R.B. Schlather may not suit everyone's taste, but the opera is framed with restraint, and in ways that allow it to sound its own distinctive, mesmerizing voice.
Credit for the clarity of that voice falls in large measure to the excellent performances it received on Wednesday night. Kafka's characters have no proper names, but the role of the Visitor was sung here by Neal Ferreira with a firm yet sweet tenor. The Officer was deftly taken up by David McFerrin. And the chamber part was delivered by a quintet of fine string players under the sensitive direction of Ryan Turner. The opera's two silent roles of the Soldier and the Condemned Man were here folded into a single part performed artfully by former Boston Ballet principal dancer Yury Yanowsky.
For his staging, Schlather chose not to even attempt to depict Kafka's killing machine. The set designed by Julia Noulin-Mérat centers on a simple sloping ramp. The men move up and down; they jump off of it, crawl under it. In the opera's charged final pages, the ramp, and the entire Cyclorama, come to represent the machine. Even the supertitles are brought into the action.
It was interesting to sense how Glass's music itself is pulled into the field of Kafka's ambiguity. In one sense, the churning arpeggios and melodic cells that form this composer's signature style can seem a perfect modern foil to Kafka's dark visions. His is a cool, floating, depersonalized music, freed from the weight of a more traditional subjectivity. And yet, that said, this Kafka story seems to have drawn out Glass's warmer and more Romantic side. The string writing has a pathos that sweeps up all three characters inside of it, humanizing their struggles within this absurd nightmarish world. At a few moments, they stand together as if taking shelter in a storm. At the end, one begins to feel sympathy even for the penal Officer as he quivers beneath the onslaught of his own machine.
All the while, Schlather's eye for space and movement help retain the story's foothold in myth. It is a disturbing opera, but that is of course part of the point. If a book, as Kafka once wrote, must be "the axe for the frozen sea within us," then surely a Kafka opera should aspire to no less.
IN THE PENAL COLONY
Opera by Philip Glass. Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Cyclorama, Boston Center for the Arts, Wednesday night (through Sunday)