Philip Glass has composed over 30 operas in the last 40 years, yet his work sits uncomfortably with the operatic establishment. Many doubted, and continue to doubt, whether his first essay in the genre, Einstein on the Beach (1976) is an opera at all and much that has followed has divided opinion. The output is hugely uneven, but what makes Glass one of the most significant figures in opera today is his refusal to abide by the unwritten rules of opera.

Johnny Herford (Josef K) and Paul Curievici (Titorelli) © Clive Barda
Johnny Herford (Josef K) and Paul Curievici (Titorelli)
© Clive Barda

Music Theatre Wales first championed Glass’ work with The Fall of the House of Usher in 1988 and, more recently, In the Penal Colony (2010). A continuing dialogue with Glass over the years resulted in this new commission, first seen at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre in mid-October. The Trial sets Franz Kafka’s novel of a 100 years ago portraying man’s helplessness in the face of the power of the state. One of the crucial literary works of the last hundred years, it has been adapted by Orson Wells, Harold Pinter, Steven Berkoff and an earlier operatic attempt by Gottfried von Einem.

Glass specifically wished to return to Kafka’s own vision and, together with librettist Christopher Hampton and Michael MCarthy’s production, seeks to restore the work’s sense of surreal humour and sheer oddness. The resultant production must rank amongst their most impressive. Simon Banham’s set is simple (three walls, a bed, a table and some chairs), but these elements are deployed with huge imagination, into which the power of Ace McCarron’s lighting should not be underestimated.

Costumes and settings reflect the novel’s period and McCarthy’s production powerfully suggests the its claustrophobic atmosphere. The eight members of the cast are deployed throughout, gazing from windows, inserted into the set, onto the action and fate of Josef K, the central protagonist.

Johnny Herford (Josef K) and  Nicholas Folwell (Priest) © Clive Barda
Johnny Herford (Josef K) and Nicholas Folwell (Priest)
© Clive Barda

But what of the music? It is almost impossible to keep up with Glass’ vast output, but The Trial seems to represent a new distillation and soundworld. Many have remarked on its Weill-like textures, but I was more stuck by the sheer textural individuality of the instrumental writing. Yes, the trademark Glass oscillating thirds and arpeggiated figurations are still there, but more in the background. There is a more direct concentration on melody, yet also a new simplicity and starkness of texture and line (the first few minutes are almost entirely in unison). The, at times, almost gauche quality of the writing reflects the surreal action, but is done with the sophistication of a composer with 60 years of experience. The core of the work lies in the penultimate scene between Josef K and the pastor, which had a simple gravitas and was also clearly the structural point towards which the whole work moved.

The success of this production is in no small part due to its sterling cast of eight singers, who all take at least two rolls. Johnny Herford’s light baritone is compelling in capturing Josef K’s vulnerability and wrong-headed tenacity. Rowan Hellier’s bright clear mezzo, as wife of the court usher and washerwoman, conveyed wonderfully both the sensuality and sobriety of the roles. The overbearing officialdom and vulnerability of the guards and Inspector was sharply etched by tenor Michael Bennett, bass Michael Druiett and bass-baritone Nicholas Folwell, who was also a resonant and affecting pastor in the penultimate scene.  Then there was Gwyion Thomas’s honeyed tones as the prevaricating Lawyer; Amanda Forbes sober soprano as the landlady and Paul Curievici’s plaintive tenor as Titorelli. Michael Rafferty guided the superb MTW ensemble with an unerring sense of pace and elegance through the whole evening.   

****1