Glass’ ‘The Trial’ Sweeps Kafka Into A Slapstick World

In Michael McCarthy’s staging, ‘The Trial’ had a vaudeville feel, with the ensemble outfitted in fake beards
and mustaches and derby hats. (Production photos: Ken Howard/Opera Theatre of  St. Louis)
By Chuck Lavazzi

ST. LOUIS – Josef K.’s 30th birthday does not start well. Two men appear in his apartment to arrest him for an unspecified charge.  They steal his underwear, eat his breakfast, and order him to stay put until an Inspector shows up. The Inspector confirms that K. has been arrested, observes his reaction, and tells him he’s free to go to work.

Philip Glass: an often dryly humorous score for ‘The Trial.’

Thus begins the opera adaptation of Franz Kafka’s nightmarish 1915 classic The Trial, which just concluded its American premiere at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. First performed in 2014 by Music Theatre Wales at the Royal Opera House in London, the opera boasts a libretto by noted playwright and director Christopher Hampton (best known for his stage and screen adaptations of the novel Dangerous Liaisons) and music by the prolific Philip Glass. With that kind of talent, you’d think the result would pack a powerful theatrical punch, but it felt more like a bloodless intellectual exercise.

The Trial is described as “a comic opera,” and there’s no question that it has its share of comedy, but it’s mostly slapstick. When you have performers shamelessly mugging, capering about the stage as though in the grips of St. Vitus Dance, and engaging in cartoonish bouts of simulated sex, it’s a safe bet you’ll generate your share of laughs. But overall the atmosphere of The Trial is grim and bizarre. Characters behave in ways that defy logic. Every conversation is a non sequitur.

The world of The Trial is, in short, one in which nothing makes any sense. That means it’s also one with which it’s hard to establish an emotional connection. There’s a kind of clinical ingenuity to this work that makes it easy to admire but hard to enjoy.

The best thing about The Trial is the score. As anyone who has heard his Songs From Liquid Days album knows, Glass is a composer who seems as comfortable with the worlds of the stage and popular music as he is with the concert hall. You can hear that throughout his consistently fascinating and often dryly humorous score for The Trial, which often seems to echo the acerbic, music hall feel of the theatrical works of Kurt Weill. There are even moments that sound like something out of a Carl Stallings Warner Brothers cartoon score, with buffoonish trombone passages and wah-wah muted trumpets. Mr. Glass’s quirky score was more appealing than the opera as a whole.

Baritone Theo Hoffman as Josef K. with mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky as Frau Grubach.

Oddly, none of the whimsy in the instrumental parts has made its way into the vocal score, which tends to be monotonously declamatory and sometimes oddly disconnected from the orchestra. That has the advantage of making the text extremely clear – so much so that the usual projected titles were largely irrelevant – but it also makes for uninteresting listening.

I’ve never read Kafka’s novel, so I’m in no position to judge how faithful Mr. Hampton’s libretto is to the original. But as noted previously, it effectively conveys the sense of oppression by unknown (if not actually unknowable) forces that eventually grind poor Josef K. down to the point where, in the final scene, he meekly consents to being stabbed to death by the two clownish guards who confronted him at the beginning. An Opera Theatre press release from last November states that Glass saw Hampton as “the perfect person to preserve the ‘comedy-horror’ of Kafka’s writing.” He appears to have chosen wisely.

Both the original London production and this American premiere were directed by Music Theatre Wales artistic director Michael McCarthy, who deserves considerable credit for creating the atmosphere of serio-comic menace that pervades the work. The atmosphere is enhanced by Simon Banham’s stark set and Christopher Akerlind’s harsh lighting, which throws exaggerated shadows on the walls and floor, reminiscent of German Expressionist cinema.

From left, Theo Hoffman, Sofia Selowsky, Joshua Blue, Susannah Biller, Brenton Ryan.

The sense of the surreal is further heightened by the use of a small ensemble cast in which one actor plays Josef K., with seven others (five men and two women) playing all the other roles. Except for baritone Theo Hoffman, who plays Josef K., the actors all wear makeup that makes them appear vaguely clownish, an impression reinforced by the use of deliberately cheesy vaudeville fake beards and derby hats. “The audience sees that it is the same people who keep returning in different guises,” writes McCarthy in his program notes. “We know Kafka enjoyed seeing Yiddish theater and silent movies, especially Charlie Chaplin…I have aimed to embrace this feeling of black comedy by relishing the overt theatricality as a way of expressing the nightmare in which K. finds himself. One man, stuck inside a world which is constantly changing and shifting around him, into which people keep emerging as different characters and from which he cannot escape.”

Hoffman, a graduate of the Opera Theatre’s Young Artist Program, headed a strong cast. Because The Trial is K.’s nightmare, the character is on stage and singing for almost the entire opera. The part calls not only for stamina but also for dramatic flexibility, both of which Hoffman possessed in abundance. It was a brilliant performance that got a well-earned standing ovation.

The seven other performers were all impressively versatile singers and actors, handling the quick character changes with ease.

Tenor Joshua Blue and baritone Robert Mellon were the sinister “Laurel and Hardy” guards. Mellon also played two of the court officers and the priest who gives K. an opaque lesson on The Law, while Blue was also the hapless Block, whose own trial has reduced him to penury.  Bass Matthew Lau was K.’s Uncle Albert as well as the menacing Inspector. Baritone Keith Phares was (among other parts) Huld, the arrogant lawyer who is of so little help.

Susannah Biller, with Hoffman, as a woman who finds K. irresistible.

Mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky showed plenty of range as K.’s landlady Frau Grubach as well as the sexually adventurous wife of the Court Usher. Soprano Susannah Biller played Fraülein Büstner and Huld’s mistress Leni, both of whom find K. irresistible. Tenor Brenton Ryan was most notably the painter Titorelli, who advises K. on the various equally bad options available to him and whose studio mysteriously connects to the court.

Carolyn Kuan, in her Opera Theatre debut, led the small orchestra in an incisive reading of the score, neatly balancing the highly divergent instrumental and vocal aspects of this music.

Judging by the increase in the number of empty seats after intermission, The Trial wore out its welcome with at least some of the audience the night I saw it. Those who stayed on, though, rewarded the company with a standing ovation at the end.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis season concludes on June 25, but the company sponsors other events throughout the year; click here for more information.

Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic at 88.1 KDHX in St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Theater Circle and Music Critics Association of North America.  Follow him @clavazzi, on Facebook, and at Stage Left.