Imagine Fidelio without the subtlety (no, that’s not something Fidelio actually has), and without any of the leavening, not-so-dark parts. And with just a tinge of Beethoven. That’s basically the premise of David Lang’s prisoner of the state: chorus of prisoners, woman in drag, jailor, crooked governor, prisoner. Death sentence, grave digging, rescue, moralizing chorus.
So it’s a heavy piece. The instrumental textures are thick, not meant to be sung with. Without amplification, the solo voices wouldn’t have stood a chance; with amplification, they needed a better mix. If you’re going to mike your singers so they can be heard over your orchestra, really do it and make sure they’re heard.
Lang’s music and text handling are circular, refracting, reflecting. A gradual tightening, then another, then another. There’s an overall fabric, but not so much one made by stitching all of the pieces directly to each other. It’s a bit relentless. Not entirely in a bad way, but it retains the Beethovenian hammering of points. I liked it, enough to want to hear it again, but just once.