Torture is not unknown in the operatic canon: it hovers in the background of Monteverdi's 1642 The Coronation of Poppea, and Verdi's 1900 Tosca, for example. Both those works shocked audiences when premiered, and even to an audience accustomed to the banality of evil in the 20th century, a 70-minute opera about a complicated mechanical torture device comprising a bed, a harrow, and tattooing needles delivering acid is still, well, harrowing. Few artistic directors would select such an antithesis of nice night's entertainment where the audience goes home happy, humming the hit tunes. A story by Franz Kafka is a downer by definition, and a score by Phillip Glass is hypnotic and unhummable.
But this was one opening night where no one nodded off. The first opera company to stage In the Penal Colony in Australia was the Sydney Chamber Opera, fledgling but already high-flying. This is just one of several productions since their launch in 2010 where they have delivered an interesting, unfamiliar work at a very high musical and theatrical standard. If the SCO were floating their shares on the Artistic Stock Exchange, we'd be buying them in the hope of owning some of the next Google.
The set by Michael Hankin is a dazzlingly bright, stark, widescreen clinic that might have been inspired by the prisoner quoted in the 2007 Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross: “I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room [...with] three solid walls, with the fourth wall consisting of metal bars separating it from a larger room." (The idea of parallel cells occurs in other Kafka stories such as The Castle, but not In der Strafkolonie.) The ghost of Guantanamo Bay hovers over the entire performance, even though director Imara Savage shuns any overt reference to it. She even omits the portrait of the previous camp commander called for in the libretto: a ham-fisted agitator might have made it George W Bush. In the past decade torture has become strongly associated with his war on terror; some will hear it in the dialogue.
Visitor Uh... Don't you find these uniforms too heavy for the tropics?
Officer But they represent our homeland.
Yet these lines are in Kafka's WWI era original, and the libretto was written in 2000, before September 11 and the Department of Homeland Security. Rudolph Wurlitzer's sometimes perfunctory adaptation sticks to the singable; it's available online but download the dozen pages of the original Kafka if you have the appetite for a complex detailed sentence such as this question from the Officer: "How should a man not feel sick when he takes a felt gag into his mouth which more than a hundred men have already slobbered and gnawed in their dying moments?" Much of the dialogue concerns the design of this horrific machine and how it should be maintained, as well as whether it should be used at all. The visitor's dramatic conflict is whether and how he should oppose it.
The two singers have fine voices and can act as well; particularly impressive was bass Paul Goodwin-Groen, both authoritative and expressive as the Officer. Pascal Herington made a suitably anxious onlooker, both in tenor voice and falsetto. Even the silent part of the condemned man is well cast and skillfully executed, by Anthony Hunt. Kafka's description is of "a stupid-looking, wide-mouthed creature with bewildered hair and face," and that is exactly how he appears, although Kafka has him thin, but when stripped naked, Hunt resembles one of Lucien Freud's corpulent models.
We never see the machine. Savage follows Quentin Tarantino's principle that the audience will imagine something more horrible than anything the director can actually create. It is supposedly behind the wide wall of white vertical blinds; what is really there is a string quintet being conducted by Huw Belling. Their miked and amplified sound is unsettling at times, but perhaps that is appropriate. A projection screen is also lowered over the blinds and strange B&W science documentary footage from the middle Soviet period is shown, also unsettling, provocative and appropriate. The one splash of colour comes at the end, when the machine goes awry: blue acid is strewn across an observation window. It has the messy beauty of a canvas by Cy Twombly. Like the acid splash, this production is brief, concentrated, powerful, and leaves a lasting impression. Sydney needs more opera like this.