Chicago Fringe Opera delivers a powerful staging of Glass’s “Penal Colony”

Sat May 21, 2016 at 2:33 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Matthan Ring Black (right) and Zachary Vanderburg in Philip Glass's "In the Penal Colony" at Chicago Fringe Opera.
Matthan Ring Black (right) and Zachary Vanderburg in Philip Glass’s “In the Penal Colony” at Chicago Fringe Opera.

It’s a heartening development, as well as a testament to the bounty of local talent, youthful audacity, and artistic determination, that some of the most inspired opera in Chicago these days is being done by small storefront companies.

Witness the current production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony being presented by Chicago Fringe Opera. Performed in a tiny gallery at the Lill Street Art Center in Ravenswood, Friday night’s performance was a knockout, with sensational performances by the two principals, impressive musical values, and ingenious direction that made a virtue out of the tight space.

With this strong and compelling production, Chicago Fringe Opera is providing local audiences with one of the opera highlights of the year. There are two more performances this weekend and this show is not to be missed.

Adapted from Kafka’s short story of the same name, Glass’s one-act drama is set in the title colony, where the Officer is eager to demonstrate his new “apparatus” for executing prisoners. The Visitor is at first curious and intrigued by the machine but gradually becomes disenchanted by both the device and the Officer’s cold inhumanity. The conflict escalates into a battle of wills between the two men with unexpected tragic consequences.

As with Kafka’s tale, Glass’s chamber opera is a clear indictment of capital punishment yet avoids preachiness and more broadly touches on the perils of losing one’s humanity to artistic grace, even in the guise of a “beautiful” death machine.

Ironically, this bleak tale contains some of Glass’s most strikingly attractive music, and the pulsing inexorable momentum and shifting meters deftly underline the action. Even with the five string musicians jammed into a corner of the space, conductor Catherine O’Shaughnessy directed the music with great skill, alertness and sensitivity, drawing responsive and largely polished playing from the ensemble.

Matthan Ring Black was simply magnificent in the role of the Officer. With every word crystal clear, the singer wielded his muscular baritone with extraordinary finesse and artistry. Dramatically Black didn’t set a foot wrong and was wholly credible from start to finish, going from a cool, dispassionate officer to dangerous, pleading and desperate over the course of the unbroken 80 minutes.

As the Visitor–in this staging a reporter scribbling notes and talking into his recorder–tenor Zachary Vanderburg was on the same level. He moved believably from an initially intrigued everyman to being appalled and repulsed by the machine, finally standing up to the bullying Officer. Vanderburg too sang beautifully, negotiating the role’s unsparing high tessitura with ease.

In the two nonspeaking roles, Matt Katzenmeier was aptly damaged and bedraggled as the Condemned Man, and Eric Staves was a faceless and efficient Soldier.

Director George Cederquist is an expert at creating compelling musical drama on a shoestring, as with his memorable production of Andy Vores’ No Exit for the (now defunct) Chicago Opera Vanguard in 2009. Even with the violent utilization of the machine having to be imagined off stage in an adjoining room, the performance was riveting. The somewhat dingy room suited the scenario with the action clustered in a tiny space with just a table and chair between four rows for the audience on either side. Yet the claustrophobic setup–with the first row inches from the singers—lent jarring intensity and immediacy to the performance.

Glass’s In the Penal Colony is an important American opera, and Chicago Fringe Opera’s production marks the first local staging in 16 years. There are just two more performances this weekend, so take the Brown Line to Montrose and go.

In the Penal Colony will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Lill Street Art Center, 4101 N. Ravenswood.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chicago Fringe Opera delivers a powerful staging of Glass’s “Penal Colony””

  1. Posted May 29, 2016 at 9:21 pm by Alexander Platt

    Bravo!! So inspiring to hear.

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