New opera at the Edinburgh Traverse is becoming an exciting annual date not to be missed. Music Theatre Wales made a return visit with In the Penal Colony by Philip Glass after their successful presentation of Letters of Love Betrayed in 2009. Before that, Lyall Creswell’s Good Angel, Bad Angel set a very high standard. And in between, the Hebrides Ensemble performed The Martyrdom of St Magnus before taking it to Kirkwall Cathedral for the Orkney Festival. The popular success of the Five:15 project from Scottish Opera demonstrates a healthy appetite for new chamber opera, and the Traverse had a waiting list for tickets for this one night only show.

In the Penal Colony is based on a short story by Franz Kafka, with libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer and music by Philip Glass. The opera is 10 years old, but this tour is its first outing in the UK. The setting was minimalist: two singers, one actor and a string quartet (with added double bass) from Scottish Opera’s orchestra. The stage had a table, a chair and a ladder.

Clive Barda
Clive Barda

The setting is a penal colony, with capital punishment in the hands of The Officer, intent on doing things very traditionally, superbly sung and acted by Omar Ebrahim. The Condemned Man was expressively played by silent actor Gerald Tyler. The third character was The Visitor, sung by Michael Bennett sent to observe proceedings.

The Officer shows the Visitor his brutal machine, and it becomes apparent that the killing takes several hours – plenty long enough for a condemned man to see the error of his ways before he is finally dispatched. The Visitor is appalled, and as it dawns on the Officer that the rest of the world has in fact moved on from the middle ages, there is only one course of action left – to turn himself over to the machine.

Glass’s music is based on repetitive but ever-changing motifs, and the musicians took up the challenge with clear relish. However, it tended to get a bit samey after a while, and there were sudden halts where everyone turned a page, and there was a different lighting cue, which I felt spoilt the flow. The amplification of both the players and singers, which although reasonably unobtrusive, was perhaps not needed, particularly as the radio mikes were having a few buzzy problems.

I was just not sure this story worked well as opera. There were times when there was not enough happening on stage. Certainly, everyone turned in good performances, but the result was ultimately less than the sum of its parts, which was a little disappointing.