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Boston Lyric Opera’s “In The Penal Colony” at the Cyclorama

Boston Lyric Opera's "In The Penal Colony" at the Cyclorama.

Boston Lyric Opera's "In The Penal Colony" at the Cyclorama.

By James Foritano


(On November 11-14, 2015, the Boston Lyric Opera Annex performed Philip Glass’ “In the Penal Colony” at the Cyclorama. Artscope’s James Foritano files this review of the show for the artscope zine.)


Boston, Mass. – The most compelling aspect of “In the Penal Colony,” composer Philip Glass’ contemporary opera inspired by the eponymous short story by Franz Kafka, is the haunting consonance between the music, the spare dialogue, and the dance-like motions of the three actor/singers on stage.


If you know Glass’ music, you know it’s about as repetitive and as nuanced as neurons firing. This narrow but intense range is mirrored in the spare dialogue and the acrobatic movements of three protagonists who enact ‘the victim,’ ‘the executioner’ and a ‘foreign visitor,’ who, he repeats often, is only there ‘out of courtesy.’


They seem to be as much ‘making’ their dialogue as caught in it, as sentenced to repeat their physical and mental attitudes, a kind of wrestling with inner and out space, until they come to a resolution not only semantically, but existentially.


If the music is ‘led’ by conductor Ryan Turner, the choreography is ‘led’ by, of all characters, the ‘victim,’ acted by Yury Yanowsky, who is in fact a retired principle dancer with the Boston Ballet and currently a teacher/ choreographer.


The bare-chested Mr. Yanowsky, black pantaloons flowing on his legs, is all about his spare movements. Sometimes he’s high, sometimes low on the scaffolding, platforms and ladders that are all the decoration of a very spare stage set. His transitions between high and low are effected with a mesmerizing agility – his points of rest are enigmatic. When he’s at low points, he seems to be a victim hiding in plain sight; perching high up, he could be a sacramental offering conscious of his ‘high’ worth.


One thinks of the Aztec victims, who, upon winning a ball game or, if female, preserving their virginity, were selected to be sacrificed in front of a worshipful audience. Uncomfortably we push the thought away lest it sit in our own seat.


Opposed, in my view, to the victim’s sometimes ‘up’/sometimes ‘down,’ view of his fate, is the more or less straightforward plod of the officer/executioner, danced and sung by David McFerrin. ‘If things would only continue as they always were’ McFerrin’s yearning voice and persevering plod seem to say, ‘I wouldn’t be hosting ‘foreign observers,’ nor would I and my killing machine be laboring under a newly inadequate budget!’ It’s truly a gallows’ humor.


Caught between the slithering grace of the ‘victim,’ the toppling momentum of the ‘executioner,’ Neal Ferreira’s ‘foreign observer’ discovers a lurching, ataxic gait that seems to mirror the awkwardness of his position as a man placed between two such enigmas of mankind, and as a delegate from a foreign realm to a realm whose citizenship, no matter one’s rank, embraces both extinction and a putative rejuvenation.


Consider how you would walk if you blundered into such a realm with an official invitation in your pocket. Just think of what music your walk would skip to and you’d imagine Philip Glass’ jittering, juddering tones – each note both a landing and a pivot.


This particular Boston Lyric Opera Annex production took place in The Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts. It’s an enfolding space designed in the 19th century for a huge circular mural of a civil war battle, and well re-purposed, both visually and acoustically for that ‘betwixt and between’ realm, both everywhere and nowhere, in which Glass’ very topical meditation on state violence happens.


Future BLO Opera Annex productions will seek also to meld a temporary venue with the enduring esthetics of opera. Perhaps you’ll find yourself in one of those venues, otherwise unfamiliar, suddenly lit with inspiration. Watch the Boston Lyric Opera website at for announcements of future performances.