Glass: In the Penal Colony

LABELS: Orange Mountain Music
WORKS: In the Penal Colony
PERFORMER: Michael Bennett, Omar Ebrahim; The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble/Michael Rafferty


Strong stomachs are needed for Glass’s 2000 opera adapted from Franz Kafka’s chilling short story. In the Penal Colony tells of a machine for torture and execution, operated by the last remaining upholder of the former regime that devised it. This officer is not just obeying orders but suffused with pride; he envies his victims their supposed redemption.

Glass homes in with scary effectiveness on the officer’s description of the machine, slowing this key scene down so that every gruesome detail works on the imagination. It takes place against a sparse backdrop of five strings.

Music and action move steadily from subdued formality to unsettled intensity. The officer grows more lyrical as he engages with his task. The only other singing character, a visiting observer, starts in Glass’s vein of melodious detachment and eventually pours out his mounting alarm. When the tables are turned, the conclusion seems almost matter-of-fact – an expert piece of composer’s stagecraft.

The recording is based on a 2010 Music Theatre Wales production. Omar Ebrahim’s officer moves from robotic vibrato to loving devotion as Michael Bennett’s lighter timbre darkens, and the quintet maintains momentum.


Robert Maycock