LONDON (Reuters) - American minimalist composer Philip Glass’s new opera “The Trial”, based on the Franz Kafka novel, begins with a waltz that is really the start of a “dance of death” for the main character, Josef K.
The latest of the prolific Glass’s “pocket operas” for small ensembles had its premiere on Saturday night at the intimate Linbury Studio Theatre in the basement of London’s Royal Opera House in a production by Music Theatre Wales.
The production features eight versatile singers, who with the exception of K, sung by the excellent British baritone Johnny Herford who is on stage almost all the time, play a variety of roles. The band consists of 12 instrumentalists.
The same group had a success several years ago with a previous Glass adaptation of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”, so neither the composer nor the troupe are newcomers to the dark works of the Czech master of paranoia.
The program notes point out that when Kafka gave his first reading of the book a century ago, those who heard him were “all helpless with laughter”.
The Keystone Cops-like demeanor of the two official-looking black-coated intruders, Franz and Willem, who begin the opera by telling banker Josef K. in his bedroom that he is under arrest - and then eat his breakfast - did get a guffaw or two.
So does the bawdy behavior of various women who, in the world Kafka describes, find accused men to be irresistible.
Kafka’s work - written before “extraordinary rendition”, detentions without trial for prisoners at Guantanamo and a host of modern security powers - provides a chilling new context for Glass’s opera.
In almost every scene, from the outset when K assumes that his arrest, on his 30th birthday, is a mistake or a prank by his co-workers, through his meetings with court officials and lawyers that begin to convince him his case is hopeless, people are always watching him - in effect like human CCTV cameras.
K’s one glimmer of hope comes near the outset when the Inspector tells him that although he is under arrest, for charges he cannot divulge, he is free to go about his daily routines.
“Then being under arrest is not so bad,” K says, to which the Inspector responds: “I didn’t say it was.”
Later, though, K meets an Usher of the court who tells him the stark reality: “We don’t put people on trial for no reason.”
As is typical of Glass in his big works like “Einstein on the Beach” or “Akhnaten”, a pulsating rhythm keeps the work moving along so the libretto by Christopher Hampton, despite its seeming wordiness, does not come across that way in performance.
What is lacking - also typically of Glass operas - is much in the way of emotionally engaging music for the singers.
There is a mechanical quality to the way the score progresses, which is perhaps appropriate for K’s situation, since he is caught in an almost clock-like mechanism that is counting down the days to his execution, by the same Willem and Franz, one day before his 31st birthday.
The standout exception is a powerful aria for the Priest, sung near the opera’s end by English bass-baritone Nicholas Folwell, in which he informs K that he has been under a common delusion that there was any hope for him being cleared.
He sings a parable about a “doorkeeper to the Law” and a countryman who spends his life waiting patiently for admittance - and dies before getting there.
Shortly afterwards Willem and Franz march K to a spot where they execute him with a butcher knife that they let him inspect, so that he knows he has been killed, as he sings with his dying breath, “Like a dog, like a dog”.
“The Trial” will have performances at the Linbury through Oct. 18 after which it goes on tour to various venues throughout Britain.
(Michael Roddy is an arts and entertainment editor for Reuters. The views expressed are his own.)
Editing by Robin Pomeroy