The New York Philharmonic closed this year’s season in June with the world premiere of prisoner of the state, an opera written by David Lang (who is notoriously loathe to capitalization). Lang’s opera also closed the Phil’s bold new “Music of Conscience” series that explores composers’ responses to the social and political issues of their times. Directed by Elkanah Pulitzer and conducted by New York Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden, prisoner of the state was inspired by Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, which is the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man to sneak into prison and rescue her husband from political imprisonment. In addition to the drama, the original opera also features a comedic mistaken identity subplot and a secondary romance, but Lang stripped these from his interpretation because (as he explained in the program notes) he felt they were tonal missteps that distracted from the central story’s themes of freedom, power, and punishment. Lang also mentioned in his program notes that he sought to further explore these themes by incorporating ideas from the political theorists Jeremy Bentham, Machiavelli, and Hannah Arendt into the libretto and dramaturgy. The result, despite a gorgeous, impressively conducted score, is overstuffed, unsatisfying, and contradictory.
“The emphasis in the design,” Pulitzer said, “is on the psychological space of prisons and imprisonment, the graphic quality of iconic spaces related to prisons, and the surveillance that pervades our current culture.” To explore this, scenic designer Matt Saunders built a chain-link cage around the orchestra with a raised tier in the back of the stage to house a chorus of prisoners — played by the extraordinary Men of the Concert Chorale of New York, clad in yellow jumpsuits and chains. The orchestra players ditched their traditional coattails for simple black clothing and knit beanies. The Prisoner (Jarrett Ott), in a trap-door underneath the foot of the stage, periodically reached his hand out of his cell to grasp the free air of David Geffen Hall. Encased in the chain-link cage, the orchestra embodied prisoners, themselves; their physical presence on the stage, surrounding the theatrical performance, added to the claustrophobic visual atmosphere of the scenic design. When the bows of the string section, for example, pierced the air around them, it felt like a visual echo of the prison’s sadism. Integrating the orchestra into the dramaturgy was a striking and bold decision.
The principles of the prison are established in an extraordinary scene early in the opera. After the Assistant (the name of the wife of the Prisoner, played by the moving soprano Julie Mathevet) tries to ask the Jailer (the magisterial bass-baritone Eric Owens) why she cannot see the Prisoner, the Chorus of Prisoners and Guards (Matthew Pearce, John Matthew Myers, Steven Eddy, and Rafael Porto) intones:
What we can’t punish
We can’t forgive
What we can’t forgive
We cannot punish.
Haunting mirror images of the Chorus of Prisoners are projected behind the Chorus themselves, creating the effect of an infinite kaleidoscope of Prisoners, as they sing “we work / we move / we break” with a harsh, percussive cadence. The backdrop (by projection designer Adam Larsen) is an expressionistic nightmare reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The Governor, a delightfully fiendish Alan Oke, soon enters and orders the Jailer to murder the Prisoner. But when the Jailer hesitates, the Governor decides to kill the Prisoner himself, singing “He has not suffered nearly enough / To kill him is to save me / The knife will set me free.” But after this exciting introduction, the action soon flatlines in the Governor’s aria:
Better to be feared than to be loved.
It is better to be feared than to be loved.
Men are fragile.
Men are liars.
Men are cowards.
Men want money.
These dreadful, Machiavelli-inspired lines were nearly salvaged by the somber, wistful music that accompanied them, which evoked a man knowingly caught in a cycle that cannot be broken. Perhaps looking to break it, my neighbor yawned.
While his image was projected in night vision above the stage, framed by the Chorus of Prisoners, the Prisoner languished in his cell underneath the stage. He sang in his aria:
But everywhere we are in chains
We are in chains
The difference here
Between prison and outside
You see the chains.
These lines are an indictment of both the inhumanity of solitary confinement and the isolating culture of surveillance that ensnares us all. Near me, another viewer distracted himself on Instagram.
The question Lang and Pulitzer raise is whether it is possible to achieve freedom from the cycle of violence that dictates these characters’ lives. At the end of the opera, when violence seems to be the only option to save her husband, the Assistant shoots the Governor. Whether the bullet hits the mark is unresolved and, apparently, unimportant. The action freezes. The Governor tenderly takes the pistol out of the Assistant’s hands, and the entire cast turns to face the audience. The orchestra expands, as if finally allowed to take a deep breath and explore its range. It is a powerful moment musically, a release after the recurring, piercing violins that had previously reflected the anxiety and frustration of the Prisoner. Theatrically it falls flat, though, as the cast pleads, predictably, to the audience, “you need to see us / … / if you can see us / we can be free.” (If it sounds confusing, it was.)
By halting the action at the climactic moment, Lang and Pulitzer abandon the story and, with it, the conceit of prisoners and cages to explain that, actually, the whole thing is a metaphor. You see: we are all prisoners in the same jail and the only way to break free is to acknowledge the humanity in those around us.
It is necessary in dark times to question how to engage a passive audience in meaningful action. Perhaps Pulitzer and Lang believed that by clipping the conclusion from the opera they could shock the audience out of its comfort zone of easy catharsis. However, what we’re left with instead is an ending so insistent of its own humanism that it reveals its total lack thereof. And there lies the bilious contradiction at the heart of this show: that prisoners aren’t worth as much as the metaphors they signify.