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The Trial

Music Theatre Wales

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Herford in The Trial in London
© Clive Barda 2015

The small-scale touring company Music Theatre Wales pulled off a major coup in securing the world premiere of Philip Glass’s latest opera, The Trial (seen Oct. 11 at the Linbury Studio Theatre in London), based on the 1914 novel by Franz Kafka that chronicles the increasingly untenable life of respectable citizen Josef K after he is arrested on unexplained charges. This is Glass’s twenty-sixth opera — a remarkable tally — and the first to have its premiere in the U.K. The composer’s association with Music Theatre Wales, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last year, dates back to 1989, when the company staged his Fall of the House of Usher; in 2010, MTW presented the European premiere of In the Penal Colony, another “pocket” opera based on a Kafkawork. 

On paper, Glass is the ideal choice for bringing The Trial to operatic life: the dreamlike cinematic backdrops painted by his resolutely melodic minimalism offer a detachment well-suited to Kafka’s nightmarish world. And, up to a point, so it proves. At the outset, Glass establishes a dark, unsettling atmosphere with winding chromaticisms and an understated, introverted quality rare in his previous operas. His trademark bustling ostinatos help convey the passing of time in the episodic story and effectively evoke Kafka’s mechanistic dystopia. Perkier sections attempt to remind us that, to its first readers, The Trial was considered so absurd as to be comedic: when Kafka first read passages to his friends, they were “helpless with laughter.” Glass describes the work as “serious, but also hilariously funny,” a view usually lost on modern readers now that the story’s prophetic horrors have long since, and repeatedly, been borne out — and which the composer is unable to rekindle in this mirthless production.

As the opera wears on, its lack of distinctive music is increasingly felt. There are some brief flashes of inspiration: the orchestral introduction to Act II is a mesmeric snake-charmer-like clarinet melody over a woodblock pulse, punctuated by muted trumpet motifs that conjure an authentic whiff of Weill’s Weimar Republic. But too much of the score is Glass-by-numbers, the trademark arpeggios and syncopated motifs little evolved since the 1980s. Glass has sixteen instruments at his disposal but does not make memorable use of them. The twelve-strong ensemble plays with confidence, however, and conductor Michael Rafferty keeps tight control. 

Unlike Glass’s more abstract operas, such as Satyagraha, The Trial has vocal lines that are almost entirely conversational and recitative-like, the musical interest lying solely in the orchestra. On the positive side — and thanks also to the singers’ excellent diction — this means that almost every word of Christopher Hampton’s pithy libretto is clear. Director Michael McCarthy’s stylized production, with Simon Banham’s sparse set and monochrome, exaggerated costumes, successfully realizes the story’s grotesque, nightmarish nature. 

Baritone Johnny Herford gives a valiant central performance as K, a wide-eyed, bemused straight-man surrounded by surreal and sinister characters. The necessity of double and triple-casting in a small company is a benefit here; the same faces reappear in different contexts to unnerving effect, enhancing the sense of being at the mercy of an intangible power.

Despite some strong ideas, however, the production feels like a sequence of scenes with little dramatic development. Interest wanes as the opera progresses, and the brutal denouement comes out of the blue rather than feeling like an inevitable, inexorable conclusion. In comparison, English Touring Opera’s production of Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse, experienced in the same venue two years ago, was a master class in intimate, grippingly tense storytelling with minimal resources. Partly because The Trial’snarrative element — a key part of Kafka’s novel — proves elusive onstage, and partly because of Glass’s largely routine score, this disappointing production does not fulfill its potential. spacer 


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