The Trial

Music by Philip Glass, libretto by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Franz Kafka
Music Theatre Wales
Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Johnny Herford (Josef K), Nicholas Folwell (Guard Willem) Credit: Clive Barda
Johnny Herford (Josef K), Paul Curievici (Titorelli). In doorway top-bottom: Amanda Forbes, Michael Bennett, Rowan Hellier, (Watchers) Credit: Clive Barda
Michael Bennett (Guard Franz), Johnny Herford (Josef K), Nicholas Folwell (Guard Willem) Credit: Clive Barda

Music Theatre Wales’s Joint Artistic Director Michael McCarthy has put together a spectacular creative team in creating this new chamber opera based on Franz Kafka’s chilling novel, The Trial.

Composer Philip Glass is the moving force and he has brought in playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton to write the libretto.

The result is unusual for an opera in that it has a text almost full enough for a play, sung by a cast of eight who, with the exception of Johnny Herford playing the central role of Joseph K, all take on multiple roles.

Readers will probably be familiar with the general plotline. K is a nondescript bank official who wakes up on the morning of his 30th birthday to find a pair of comically sinister secret policeman intent on depriving him of liberty.

The episodic libretto depicts the innocent entering what seems to be a truly terrifying nightmare during which few people behave rationally.

The police proceed without the need for justification, the law courts take action without hearing evidence and even our small-scale hero seems all too willing to fall for the unsubtle charms of any blowsy woman he meets.

To be fair, anyone hearing the mellifluous soprano of Amanda Forbes playing bleach blonde Leni might easily find themselves seduced, even were she not under-dressed.

She provides one light interlude, while the tuneful tenor of Paul Curievici playing the artist Titorelli, an amateur enthusiast of the law courts also reduces the heavy atmosphere at least briefly.

In Simon Banham’s simple design, the protagonist’s claustrophobic bedroom easily converts into interrogation cells, law courts and even the home of a dying magistrate, arguably, in view of his condition, too powerfully sung by Gwion Thomas.

The following twelve months see the long arm of the law gradually taking the seemingly respectable and completely mystified citizen into a terrifying descent into the realms of the worst criminals.

With a text that was originally commenced as early as 1914, this can be seen as a remarkable allegory predicting the totalitarian excesses that were to characterise so much of the 20th century and still continue into our own time.

For the most part, though, this is hardly the cheerful fare that one might expect from a trip to the opera, where even depressing themes are often given upbeat presentations.

Instead, Philip Glass and his team have created a very theatrical take on a classic novel with characteristic minimalist music adding to the darkness of a fascinating evening.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher