United States David Lang, prisoner of the state: Soloists, New York Philharmonic / Jaap van Zweden (conductor). David Geffen Hall, New York City, 7.6.2019. (DS)
Director – Elkhanah Pulitzer
Scenic designer – Matt Saunders
Lighting designer – Maarten Warmerdam
Costume designer – Maline Casta
Choir director – Donald Nally
The Assistant – Julie Mathevet
The Jailor – Eric Owens
The Governor – Alan Oke
The Prisoner – Jarrett Ott
Guards – Matthew Pearce, John Matthew Myers, Steve Eddy, Rafael Porto
Chorus of Prisoners – Men of the Concert Chorale of New York
There is something deeply appealing about an opera staged in a concert hall. It can satisfy two desires at once: to experience instrumental interpretation in equal proportion to theatrical dialogue. That is, if it is done well. The New York Philharmonic’s version of David Lang’s prisoner of the state (2019) achieved a perfect balance, signaling an organically binding relationship between musical score and action.
The entire stage was surrounded in a rough, barbed-wire prison cage, from floor to ceiling rafters. While the musicians warmed up, singers in the chorus of yellow-jumpsuited prisoners stretched, walked back and forth, and settled into character on a second level platform above the stage. The orchestra was split down the middle — like the parting of the Red Sea — to allow soloists to move back and forth between them. And, not surprisingly, the dynamic music director, Jaap van Zweden, emerged from behind a prison gate between these two orchestral halves to walk directly up to the podium. Even before the first note from his baton, an operatic experience was in action.
This spatial blending of music and theater added punch to Lang’s already formidable message. Whether in physical chains or holding the key to a jail cell, we are all prisoners — shifting our roles to somehow survive the power structures that rule our daily lives. The score was vintage Lang, with its greatest element being a skillfully composed sense of dread and suspense. Lang matched a lyrically minimalist motif with the flow of the singers’ melody —reminiscent of the rapport between instrumentation and soloist in The Whisper Opera, which he composed in 2013.
The singers fully realized the whole production. Each of the four soloists added a unique vocal timbre into the conversation, conveying both reality and humanist diversity.
As the Assistant, soprano Julie Mathevet coupled cooled innocence with a subtle vibrato, hinting at hopeful determination to believe in the existence of love. As the Governor, tenor Alan Oke accelerated his piercing tone into a burnished metallic sound that expressed both the character’s evil nature and paranoid political station. And baritone Jarrett Ott gave the Prisoner a metronomically exact vibrato, matched with a deliberate thinning of tone — slowly exhausted — that mirrored his character’s weakening state of existence.
Finally, and undoubtedly the most successful performance of the evening, was bass-baritone Eric Owens as the Jailor, and arguably the libretto’s main character. His voice pulled deeply from the wells of humanity, projecting out into the audience as if to extend the stage far beyond the walls of the concert hall. As his character shifted from a place of formidable power to that of a conflicted underling of a murderous state, his voice transformed with the kind of artistic timing that comes along only a handful of times in a generation. To be in Owens’s vocal grip, alongside the sense of engulfment in Lang’s accelerating score, made prisoner of the state the kind of experience that glues an audience to its chair, only to bring it to its feet at the end.