United Kingdom Glass: The Trial. The latest opera from Philip Glass to the libretto of Christopher Hampson, based upon the book by Franz Kafka, performed by Music Theatre Wales / Mike Rafferty (conductor),. Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 10:11:2014 (GR).
Josef K: Johnny Herford (Baritone)
Franz/Block: Michael Bennett (Tenor)
Willem/Clerk of the Court/Usher/Priest : Nicholas Folwell (Bass-Baritone)
Inspector/Uncle: Michael Druiett (Bass)
Frau Grubach/Washerwoman/Usher’s Wife: Rowan Hellier (Mezzo)
Fräulein Bürstner/Leni: Amanda Forbes (Soprano)
Magistrate/Lawyer Huld: Gwion Thomas (Baritone)
Titorelli/Flogger/Student: Paul Curievici (Tenor)
Music: Philip Glass
Libretto : Christopher Hampson, based upon the book by Franz Kafka,
Director: Michael McCarthy
Designer: Simon Banham
Lighting: Ace McCarron
Premiered by Music Theatre Wales last month at the Linbury Theatre London, the state-of-the-art Cardiff-based opera company enjoyed a run of six performances there of Philip Glass’s The Trial. Their seven-venue UK tour, this ended at the Birmingham Rep on Nov 10th where a well-filled house gave the MTW an enthusiastic reception, confirming it was a job well done. It is hard to believe that this is the composer’s 26th opera, and his latest success is due in no small part to his collaboration with tried and tested associates. One of them, Christopher Hampson has delivered a libretto true to Kafka, but with a language for Josef K. and the eccentric bunch of characters he meets up with that is down-to-earth and easy on the ear, updated into the twenty-first century (if Kafka ever needs updating). He has created audible lines without loss of essential substance, blending splendidly with the post-postmodernist style of Glass in what is their third partnership.
Entrusted with the European premiere of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1989, MTW’s latest cooperation with Glass has been long awaited, but it was well worth it. The Trial features eight vocalists and twelve instrumentalists, slotting nicely into the terminology of pocket-opera, or as Glass labelled his contributions to the genre – neutron bombs, small but packing a punch. With In the Penal Colony (another Glass adaptation of Kafka) behind them, The Trial was perfect music theatre potential for such proven specialists in the field of chamber opera as MTW.
Glass is a unique composer whom you either love or hate. But even his most punitive critic has to admit that his opera music adds much to the narrative as well as razor-sharp depictions of the internal thoughts of his characters; I found both strengths abundantly exemplified in The Trial. As is typical of Glass, there was liberal use of ostinatti, restated as appropriate, yet each of the five scenes in the two acts had its own means of adroitly moving the plot along, contributing to a theatre of the mind. However Glass explored the various psychologies of the drama, the MTW Ensemble, masterfully conducted by their Joint Artistic Director Michael Rafferty was equal to the task.
Telling K’s fate from start to finish exhibited Glass’s command of an instrumental group. From the outset of Act I Scene 1 there was a menace in the repeated patterns of the lower strings, immediately apparent that events did not bode well for K. Having been to his bank and returned home, there was time for contemplation of his predicament, a mood reflected by the lyricism of the woodwinds and xylophone that opened I.2; but upon meeting up with his attractive neighbour Fräulein Bürstner the racing of his pulse was mirrored through the woodblock of busy percussionist Julian Warburton. Ground bass was used to excellent effect as K searched for his designated court room in I.3; some irritable harmonies emphasised his anxiety and as the dissonance continued his mood turned to frustration when his audience found distraction elsewhere (see photo). And with no scene change to I.4, Glass scored a bass trombone to change the mood; with K seemingly going around in circles; the woodwind and keyboard echo his exasperation, a sensation the Washerwoman cannot relieve. At the arrival of Uncle Albert in I.5, there was an anticipation that K’s future might improve, but the ostinatti returned to resurrect the desolation of Kafka’s dystopian imagination.
A marching rhythm began Act II, boosted by the military bearing of the two guards Franz and Willem, but minimalism prevailed. Then as the fan club of Titorelli clamber to gain audience in II.2, the music led by some energetic percussion raced along, noticeably as those looking in from the outside delivered a running commentary. As the affections of Leni became centre stage in II.3, the music questioned the moralities of this good-time girl with some undeveloped snatches passed between individual Ensemble players. However during II.4 as the Priest presented his parable, Glass adopted a more serious tone, giving K. the closest explanation he ever got regarding his accusation. In the concluding scene a sense of macabre led to the bloody denouement.
When Kafka first read The Trial to his literary friends in 1914, it was said they were ‘all helpless with laughter’. Glass/Hampton attempted to replicate Kafka by putting Josef K. in extreme situations where realism was vacated for existential noir. Although the opera was not received at the Birmingham Rep with side-splitting hilarity, there was mild laughter at times and many amusing moments to bring out a smile. Michael McCarthy’s excellent direction produced some subtle gallows humour. Indeed the plot might be considered to be a cruel joke played by an authoritarian state upon our protagonist enveloped by a surreal world. McCarthy said his team ‘tried to present both the sad and the happy face, the tragedy and the comedy, get the tone of the comedy right then the tragedy is all the more harrowing’; and they succeeded. The tone of the farcical nature of the opera was set early in I.1: having been officially arrested K believed that some proof of identity would satisfy his accusers, but the best document he was able to supply was his bicycle licence. And before he was to be interviewed by the inspector, he had to exchange his brown jacket for a black one, black humour indeed. The muddle in which the court finds itself was highlighted in the following scene – with no precise details of a time and place for his preliminary hearing, K arrived an hour late and was addressed by the magistrate as a house-painter. The action took place in an appropriately minimalistic box designed by Simon Banham. His space was occupied from time to time with tables, chairs and a bed, complete with suitably placed orifices for the onlookers and doors to access additional characters. Set and props afforded a totally smooth presentation, epitomized by when the noise from a cupboard in K.s office which upon opening revealed the Flogger and his two victims. The lighting of regular team-member Ace McCarron fitted the bill as ever, the shadows cast during the cathedral scene adding much to effect a cavernous space.
Johnny Herford played the victim of the bizarre circumstances, pacing himself well during his two hours on stage; his character displayed an initial irritation at the dawn raid into his bedroom, passing through phases of bewilderment, passion, frustration before his final resignation, although I wondered if his persistent clumping around the stage was overdone. The rest of the singing cast had multiple roles. Amanda Forbes was an alluring Leni, bewitching K with her eyes while pumping up her master’s pillows and proving she had a pleasant soprano when she began to seduce him. Rowan Hellier as the Washerwoman was the other femme fatale to show an interest in K but with her Court connections, it was a relationship that was just one of the nails in K’s coffin. Michael Bennett and Nicholas Folwell were the guards who arrest Josef, suitably officious in their suits and bushy moustaches, and almost reluctant executioners. Michael Druiett was an inspector who had seen it all before and the Uncle who blustered one minute, using his height to be imposing the next. Gwion Thomas was the lawyer who claimed to know the law but whose influence in such matters was worthless. The strange artist Titorelli, dynamically filled by Paul Curievici, was a painter of seemingly limited talent, reduced to reproductions of a boring landscape and portraits of judges to endow him with the courts. One of the most intriguing roles of the cast was their function as observers to the episodes that befall K. The characters themselves and their get-ups were interesting too (including assortments of hijabs, hillbilly beards and bracers) gathering either with simple morbid curiosity or a more sinister Big Brother attitude dictatorship. It drew me into the plight of K, providing an acute sense of Kafkaesque. This was music theatre as it should be – stimulating and entertaining.