Sydney Chamber Opera through a Glass darkly

In the Penal Colony is a minimalist chamber opera taking on big, brave themes.

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The Condemned Man receives his punishment.
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Anthony Hunt as the Condemned Man
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Tenor Pascal Herington (the Visitor)

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“The harrow has the job of carrying out the punishment.
The law that the condemned man has broken will be written on his body.
The first six hours, the man remains alive almost as before.
He only suffers pain…
After two hours he has no strength left for screaming.”

It all sounds like a fun night at the theatre. Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, based on the 1914 short story by Kafka, is one of his darkest and most confronting works. And it is being given its Australian premiere this week by Sydney Chamber Opera (SCO) to mark the cult composer’s 75th birthday. 

Even for Kafka, this one’s particularly grim. A visitor is invited to witness a violent execution carried out by a terrifyingly efficient torture machine – punishment for an undisclosed crime. Along with the unnamed visitor, Sydney Chamber Opera’s audience will be drawn into the action as voyeurs witnessing a sadistic spectacle. 

The young guns at SCO are shaking up the opera establishment with their reputation as the little company tackling big, confronting themes. Their first production in 2011 was based on the rantings of Dostoyevsky’s reclusive anti-hero in Notes from the Undergroundstaged, appropriately enough, in an old Sydney prison. In November 2011, they presented the Bach cantata Ich habe genung alongside a setting of T S Eliot’s existential A Song for Simeon, atop a giant mound of dirt with bondage chains and real pigs' intestines for props. 

Artistic director Louis Garrick insists that, “although In the Penal Colony isn’t a graphically violent production and we don’t actually show the suffering of the condemned man, I often feel that in music theatre the most gripping and powerful moments of the drama are expressed through music, not through literal depiction onstage.”

Still, audiences will be walking out of NIDA’s Parades Playhouse with a lot to think about: abuses of power, justice, cruelty, anti-terrorism extremes and capital punishment. “The responsibility to protect is an important part of contemporary international relations discourse,” says Garrick. “Should the international community intervene when a state is causing harm to its population?”

Kafka’s chilling little parable is ideally suited to Glass’s intimate sound world of two opera singers and an amplified string quintet: after all, the string quartet is the genre of instrumental music most strongly associated with brooding introspection. As the American iconoclast told The Telegraph when In the Penal Colony had its UK premiere in 2010, he felt liberated by the chance to write a “pocket opera…for just a few singers and players, with sets you could put in a couple of suitcases”.

Garrick agrees that less is more: “The music’s hypnotic repetition is like a turning screw, and the sinewy, almost sickly chamber setting captures the menace and psychology of the story in a much more immediate way than could be achieved with a full orchestra.”

Director Imara Savage and designer Michael Hankin's claustrophobic vision of the work transports us to “a series of stark, severe white institutional corridors,” as Garrick describes it. “It's like looking into a hospital or a prison, and this enhances the horror of the nightmare.”

Warning: patrons may experience difficulty sleeping after seeing this production.

Sydney Chamber Opera's In The Penal Colony runs at NIDA April 7 – 14. View event details here.

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