Franz Kafka's mystifying novel is the basis of what turned out to be an opus of considerable merit and a truly a winning combination: Kafka, composer Philip Glass, librettist Christopher Hampton and the Scottish Opera!

This is not the first time that composer Glass and playwright/librettist Hampton have collaborated. Neither could be called commercial in any sense of the word and in Glass’ music the same motif is oft repeated until it reaches a powerful crescendo - a power that cannot and will not be denied. Many readers will no doubt be acquainted with Kafka's novel of the same name or at the very least have heard of it. Don't ask for explanations in this story about a man who is arrested without knowing why. Despite the ensuing absurdist scenario - which is often laced with deadpan humor - the threat of an almighty and inaccessible authority is never far away.
The protagonist Josef K. (a tour-de-force performance from baritone Nicholas Lester) is asleep in his bed on a virtually bare stage (except for cubby holes and apertures where he is continually spied on) when two near identical, bowler-hatted and low brow bureaucratic minions (tenor Daniel Norman and baritone Paul Carey Jones) arrive and inform him that he is under arrest and Josef's nightmare is about to begin. Is there anyone he can actually trust? Josef isn't imprisoned though remains under arrest – what a surreal scenario! Nothing is explained to him, nobody really seems to know anything yet at the same time everyone seems to know more than he does.

As he stands accused in the privacy of his own room we are introduced to an array of characters, from Uncle Albert (baritone Michael Druitt) to Frau Grubach (mezzo-soprano Emma Kerr) to Fräulein Bürstner (soprano Hazel McBain), from good-humored painter Titorelli (tenor Elgan Llyr Thomas) to the Lawyer Huld (baritone Gwion Thomas) to name but a few. Most performers play two or even three different characters.
The man chosen to defend him issues contradictory warnings while another accused man reveals to him he has six different briefs but we are talking about someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Is he telling Joseph the truth? Will the truth make Josef even more paranoid? The woman who works for Lawyer Huld appears to be stimulating everyone in a sexual manner and even seduces Josef. On more than one occasion the corruption of the flesh is paired with the corruption of the mind and the entire scenario is as unrelenting as is Glass's music. Somehow we know that Josef (who always strives to be honest) will have little chance of getting out of this terrifying nightmare. It is a nightmare that writer Kafka experienced during his day though it extends into the 21st century, in fact in an age where practically every move we make (physical or digital) is spied upon or monitored one can easily land in a similar grotesque scenario!

The Scottish Opera’s high standards are perfectly maintained here with bravura performances throughout. Nicholas Lester is hardly ever off the stage which is just as well seeing how he has no great sustained arias. Then again, composer Glass’ work is not the playground for grand arias in any case. The sparse set (courtesy of Simon Banham) further contributed to the overall feel of paranoid claustrophobia as we see Josef continually observed by other members of the cast. The costumes perfectly matched the mood. Really, The Trial did not falter for one minute and the production sets out to prove that less can indeed be more!

(© Photo by James Glossop)
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