Ryan Thorn and Martin Bakari
Ryan Thorn and Martin Bakari Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Sadly, ashamedly, disappointingly, there never seems to be a wrong time for In the Penal Colony.

In 1919, when Franz Kafka’s brutal, allegorical short story In the Penal Colony was first published, it felt like a stark reflection of the ugliness of World War I—a conflict which resulted in the deaths of nearly 1.5 million soldiers from his home of Austria-Hungary—and a history of the harsh punishments European citizens received. And when composer Philip Glass started developing a chamber opera based on it, a debate was raging about the efficacy of capital punishment, spurred on by an NPR special that featured recordings of state-sponsored executions in Georgia .

A day before the Portland Opera was set to premiere Glass’s In the Penal Colony at the Hampton Opera Center, news broke that US Attorney General William Barr would be, after two decades, reinstating the federal death penalty. That reality was fresh in the minds of everyone attending In the Penal Colony's opening night performance, sending small shivers through the audience as the Officer (baritone Ryan Thorn) sang a gruesome description of “the apparatus”—a machine dreamt up by Kafka that uses needles to inscribe the details of a prisoner’s crime onto their skin, slowly killing them in the process. The similarities to our current penal system only made the opera, and its nightmare-inducing, yet inevitable conclusion, that much more shattering.

Director Jerry Mouawad wisely gives the audience only a hint of what the apparatus looks like. Librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer provides an outline of what it does, through the voice of the Officer describing it to the Visitor (tenor Martin Bakari) who has arrived at the colony to report on the necessity for this device. Mouawad adds rough drawings of gears and a supine body on sheets of linen, displayed sporadically during the nearly 90-minute performance. Beyond that, he wants our imagination to run wild, aided by the screams of the Condemned Man (Sean Doran, otherwise silent throughout) and the blood stains on the floor.

The work Mouawad has done for Imago Theatre informed his staging of Penal Colony in both positive and negative ways. Responding to the reduced space of the Gregory K. and Mary Chomenko Hinckley Studio Theatre, the show's opening involves its four actors pulling open a large square of fabric that they affix to the floor. In the center lay their costumes, which they slowly put on, and a bucket of stage makeup that they help each other apply. The intimacy of these actions is a perfect introduction to the strange tenderness of the Officer 's punishments. He waits for the look of enlightenment and bliss that, he swears, comes over a man's face just before he dies.

Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

It’s only the musical interludes, when the actors move dramatically around the space, that snapped me out of the otherwise consuming performance. Mouawad has the actors making big, sweeping movements and playing moments with silent movie-like broadness. Combined with some unnecessary projections and sound effects, the power of the opera was, at times, diluted.

The focus and strength returned, though, in the vocal performances and the steady pulse of the string quintet. Thorn was stunning throughout. True to his character’s calling, he began the opera with a stiff spine and the tone of a seasoned soldier, but with subtle timbral embellishments, he found shades of pleading and terror. Baraki was a fine match, though he fought early on to let his voice find clarity throughout the theater. He got better as the opera continued, landing at the end with a perfect combination of bureaucratic remove and anxiety.

While I knew what to expect from Glass’ score for Penal Colony—his signature pulse-driven sound, augmented by more drawn-out chords and single note drones—the aspect that slowly cut to my core was the sound of the double bass. Plucked and bowed by David Parmeter, it became an unavoidable presence—like groans from deep within the earth fed by the bodies and blood spilled upon it. As elements of the production threatened to pull me out completely, the sound of that bass held me firm.

(Thurs Aug 1, 7:30 pm, Tues Aug 6, 7:30 pm, Thurs Aug 8, 7:30 pm, and Sat Aug 10, 7:30 pm, Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers, $35 and up)