Even by Kafka’s standards In the penal settlement
(to use the 1949 translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser)
is a singularly depressing and pessimistic story. An explorer
visits a condemned man before his execution, and is told by
the officer in charge that the man is to die by a slow and protracted
form of torture, death by a sort of hybrid between tattooing
and acupuncture. The officer is distressed that this method
of execution is to be discontinued and – to cut a fairly short
story rather shorter – substitutes himself for the victim in
the hope of achieving the enlightenment he has previously observed
in his victims’ eyes. However a malfunction in the machinery
kills him before this catharsis can take place, and the explorer
leaves apparently little the wiser for his encounter.
The translation used by Glass’s librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer
is In the penal colony and he changes the name of the
‘Explorer’ to the ‘Visitor’ which is no better a translation
of Kafka’s original Forschungsreisende but perhaps
points up the modern applicability of the story more precisely.
The work was first performed in Seattle in 2000, and so predates
the Guantanamo situation; but this recording is based on the
UK première in 2010 where the production photographs included
in the booklet seem to indicate that the parallels with Guantanamo
were clearly evoked – not that anything that happened at Guantanamo
was as horrific as the situation Kafka presents. Incidentally
Wurlitzer cuts the repulsive scene in Kafka when the condemned
man vomits into his gag, for which mercy much thanks.
The trouble with Kafka’s original story is that the reader can
feel no sympathy whatsoever with either of the two principal
characters: either the hidebound officer who is so in love with
past tradition that he is willing to suffer torture rather than
give it up, or the ineffectual visitor who despite his personal
misgivings is incapable of taking any public moral stance whatsoever.
The booklet notes give no indication at all why Glass thought
that this thoroughly pessimistic story would make good operatic
material, although he has been a past master at making music-drama
out of the most unlikely of scenarios. This story is not about
a mythical archetype like Gandhi or Akhenaten; these are real
people, even if their actions are not readily comprehensible.
In Beauty and the Beast Glass had the characterisation
of the original film to provide a scaffold for his music; here
he has to provide it himself from scratch - it seems impossible
somehow to avoid gruesome gallows humour.
Because the accompanying ensemble is so small (only a string
quintet) it should in theory be clearly possible to hear every
word that is sung. The problem is that it is not: either because
the word-setting is difficult to sing – which in fact it does
not appear to be – or because the singers are unable to vocalise
with clarity on the notes they are given, or because solo strings
provide more competition for the singing voice than a string
orchestra would do. Paradoxically enough it is easier for violins
to play softly en masse than when there are fewer of
them. Although both the singers are technically proficient,
neither have the chance to project with sufficient force – which
is needed at times. Fortunately the booklet provides complete
texts and stage directions, so it possible to follow the plot
with the aid of these and the production photographs.
As the music proceeds, Glass’s music begins to take hold. After
a lengthy introductory scene we reach the point where the ‘visitor’
moves to the front of the stage and delivers a brief soliloquy.
The music suddenly hesitates, becomes unsure of itself; and
the dramatic situation grips for a while before the cycle of
repetitive ostinati begins again. It slowly becomes
apparent that the small size of the accompanying ensemble is
a real problem. Moments which demand a more positive response
from the orchestra just don’t get it. The sound of the torture
machine when it starts up adds a percussive accompaniment which
introduces a new sound, but it doesn’t have the emotional impact
that the situation really needs. It might grab one in a live
performance, but as a purely musical experience it lacks immediacy.
And the description by the officer of executions in former days
brings a horrific parallel to the torture scene in James MacMillan’s
Ines de Castro - written four years earlier - with
even the music initially sounding very much the same. Just a
coincidence? Whatever the reason, one feels distinctly uncomfortable
with the jaunty upbeat music with which these scenes are described;
in the case of the MacMillan it is a positive frisson
of disgust, but here it is just queasiness. And so the dialogue
goes on, for what seems an eternity; because neither the duologue
itself nor the emotional situation manage to really seize the
The scene culminating in the execution of the officer brings
a sudden increase in the musical pulse, with an access of some
sudden dramatic engagement from the singers; but this soon passes
and the final scene for the ineffectual visitor returns us to
the slower music from before. This does has a greater intensity,
of an emotional catharsis achieved; but it is all a bit late,
and the ending is far too abrupt with no time allowed for consideration
of the allegory to sink in.
The singing, as I have observed, is technically fine; but neither
of the singers ever manage to achieve really full voice in the
parlando delivery they are consistently asked to adopt.
Ebrahim has a long and distinguished track record in modern
music, but Bennett’s very English voice lacks a real tenor ring.
One notes that his experience in ‘traditional classical’ music
seems to have been limited to Monteverdi and Mozart, but his
character does not seem to demand any real heroics. Ebrahim
similarly does not raise his voice even when the libretto specifies
that “he yells down to the Visitor” or “he yells to the condemned
man”. His somewhat monochrome delivery of Glass’s musical lines
does nothing to bring life to the increasingly horrific situation.
The players of the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble deliver the
notes precisely and with life, even when they understandably
sound rather weary on occasion. They are physically unable to
summon up any additional strength for the climax at the end,
when it really is needed.
There have been a number of operas written since the war which
address either directly or indirectly the issues addressed by
Kafka’s short story. The most effective is surely Dallapiccola’s
Prigioniero, which is far more subtle in the way it
addresses the issues of ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’. It’s also
far more sinister in the way that it identifies the most effective
torture as being the illusory hope of escape. Glass’s opera,
for all its good intentions, is not in that class. It is simply
not unpleasant music, and the story surely demands that it should
Paul Corfield Godfrey