Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"The Trial": Franz Kafka's incomplete novel is nicely rounded off by Philip Glass's music in Opera Theatre of St. Louis production

The Philip Glass compositional procedure — which he concisely sums up as "music
Joseph K.'s upended world in "The Trial" pauses for a portrait.
of repetitive structures" — seems a natural fit for the worldview of Franz Kafka. The short-lived Jewish citizen of Prague, who wrote in German, defined the cryptic, justice-challenged dilemmas of modern life for the 20th century in fiction with the force and mystery of parables.


Glass felt he should someday write an opera based on "The Trial" shortly after first reading it 60 years ago. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production, an American premiere, confirms that affinity. The naturalness, the "everydayness," of Glass's music — its buoyancy, its dogged continuity, its jog-trot tempos, its textural variety — suit Kafka, with one big difference: "The story is so dark that you can't tell it that way," Glass is quoted as saying in the June issue of St. Louis Magazine. "It has to be burlesqued."

The original, private readers of "The Trial" are said to have found it hilarious. Glass and his librettist, Christopher Hampton, plumbed the story's depth and pulled the mockery to the surface, originally on a four-company commission that premiered in 2014. The OTSL production, directed by Michael McCarthy, picks up and amplifies that interpretation expertly.

The score is a soundtrack, a tapestry lying behind the isolation of Joseph K., the assistant manager at a bank, from everything he took for granted in his life, down to the landlady who always brought him his breakfast. The performance I saw Saturday night, suavely conducted by Carolyn Kwan, had to deal with some absences in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra that layered unscripted absurdity upon the intended kind: The most evident substitution had repetiteur Adam Nielsen at the piano laying down the work's opening pattern instead of the score's cello. But the coordination with the stage was so acute, and the work of the replacement musicians so creditable, that no sign of anything amiss came across to the audience. 

The ability of this "Trial" to rise above any sudden difficulties was centered on the performance of Theo Hoffman as Joseph K. We anticipate that the solidly placed citizen of an unnamed city is about to experience disruption when we first see him flopping briefly and spasmodically toward wakefulness at daybreak. We guess, correctly, that Hoffman is going to embody Kafka's hapless hero down to his fingertips. And yet he is also Everyman. A lot of us wake up this way, after all: a few twitches, a thrusting out of arms and legs from beneath the covers, the head raised jerkily, the eyes blinking into alertness.

Joseph K. in his nightshirt tries to deal with two arresting officers.
Hoffman connects this initial impression so smoothly to the anxiety that is about to engulf Joseph K. that we are uncomfortably and unswervingly sympathetic to him. It starts with his first shock of the day: his arrest by two stout minor court officers, inspired in this production perhaps by Mack Sennett comedies, complete with handlebar mustaches and risible officiousness. (Other characters later appear in phony beards out of the silent-film era.) We remain caught up in Hoffman's brilliant portrait of a bright fellow, comfortable with who he is and at first suspecting a co-workers' joke, thrown into totally murky circumstances. 

He moves with hyperactive, ineffectual curiosity, becoming acquainted with the apparent ubiquity of a justice system that has trapped and confounded him. And so he remains until his final swift demise at the system's functionaries. Just before that, after asking himself a series of sensible questions, in the novel Joseph K. concludes: "Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living."  Hoffman was that man, finding the emotional core of the piece throughout. He  displayed a well-projected, scrupulously phrased baritone that never wavered among all Joseph K.'s adventures. The will to live is absolute; only his logic fails him.

The hero at every turn encounters people who know more than he does, or at least want to give him that impression. The droll fellows who arrest him are played and sung with fizz by Joshua Blue and Robert Mellon. They are typical of the rest of the cast in also being required to take on other roles: Mellon presents with stunning finality the absurdity of K.'s situation as the Priest in the opera's climactic cathedral scene. And Blue is a bundle of feckless energy as the groveling businessman Block.

 A femme fatale on his lap leaves Joseph K. still clueless.
As in dreams, people whom Joseph K. recognizes in one context have to be accepted as looking eerily just like someone else encountered in another. These singers were unfailing in carrying out the chameleon changes on and around Simon Banham's bland yet imposing set. It's basically a large squeezed diamond shape center stage, backed by a gray wall with hidden openings through which both crucial and trivial vignettes play from time to time. 

Sofia Selowsky and Susannah Biller are the cast's two women, occasionally called upon to represent erotic distractions to the hero as well as the objects of other men's lechery. They are also a landlady and a neighbor, respectively, and as such have no siren function to perform (though Joseph briefly misinterprets the neighbor's interest). They are simply fixtures in the hero's normal life who have somehow become inscrutable as he sinks further into the dilatory but crushing claws of the system.

Also well-suited to flesh out the fullness of K.'s plight was Matthew Lau (performing with a freshly injured shoulder on Saturday night) as both the Inspector who informs the hero of his legal difficulty and K.'s Uncle Albert, the type of nattering, censorious relative who functions in this story somewhat like the biblical Job's "miserable comforters."

Keith Phares was responsible for much of the performance's persistent comedy as the lawyer Huld, self-important and indulging in semi-invalidism. Brenton Ryan was notably animated as a mad-artist caricature, the painter Titorelli, mysteriously well-connected with the legal system but, of course, absolutely unhelpful to Joseph K.

In short, "The Trial" amounts to a concise and vivid musical representation of Kafka's enigmatic book. The puzzlement remains, but in this guise also amuses in all its dark effervescence. K.'s bafflement becomes ours, though the panache of Glass's music allows us to keep enough emotional distance to position comedy above dread. While honoring Kafka's uncanny prophetic spirit as embodied by OTSL, we cling to the hope we also can keep real-world distance from such a plight as Joseph K.'s.

[Photos by Ken Howard]