GLASS The Trial
Music Theatre Wales’s heartening and astutely developed relationship with Philip Glass is over 25 years old and reached its apex when the composer wrote his Kafka-based opera The Trial for the company. MTW subsequently gave the work’s premiere at the Linbury Theatre, Covent Garden, in October 2014 and that is the production captured here in a BBC Radio 3 recording.
The relationship is fully in evidence in this tight, idiomatic, confident yet nuanced performance under Michael Rafferty. Johnny Herford’s consistently warm-voiced portrayal of Josef K, the unfortunate but stoic soul subjected to a trial so ambiguous and all-encompassing that it feels born of the mind rather than of reality, is as well-studied as it is dramatic and impassioned. There are impressive turns from the bright-voiced Amanda Forbes (Fraülein Bürstner and Leni) and the commanding Nicholas Folwell (Usher, Clerk of the Court, Priest). The 12-piece band is sleek, flexible and pretty much faultless.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Glass’s music. It could hardly wish for better legal counsel than Gramophone’s Pwyll ap Siôn, who writes in the booklet that the score taps the crippling doubts and uncertainties of Kafka’s characters – a ‘music theatre of the mind’. It certainly does. Not so convincing is James Hawes’s claim in a parallel essay that ‘if any artist alive can truly catch what is at the heart of Kafka … it is Philip Glass’. A bold statement given that Glass’s mode of expression remains on its narrow course while the dramatic and psychological implications of the language of music have exploded around it.
The operatic problem with The Trial is that, unlike Satyagraha or comparable works, it is founded on exchange-based dialogue and technical explanation. Glass’s four-bar structures render that text-setting laughably foursquare, not least when he has to crowbar a slightly longer passage of text in and can’t help but force it into a gabble. You might argue that helps conjure the strange, procedural, facelessly bureaucratic world in which Josef K finds himself. I would counter that, along with the consistent tempo, it becomes both musically and theatrically frustrating and is simply un‑operatic.
Michael Nyman’s masterpiece of minimalist opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat feeds off the dramatic potential of setting a rigid metrical tempo and then shifting it scene-to-scene, flashpoint-to-flashpoint. Glass’s pulse is rigid throughout; scene changes are jarringly banal and his reluctance to portray real-time dramatic situations in his score – as when Leni and Josef K are caught copulating on the floor together – count against it in the music theatre stakes. If you can get around that, there is much to enjoy in this performance, but it seems ironic to me that the only truly heart-stopping moments come when, yes, that pulse itself stops.