The Trial | Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, May 27 – June 25

A great opera requires that many elements—among them music, story, movement, costumes, and set—must work perfectly together. That’s a tough assignment, but when it happens, the work becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Such an opera is The Trial, with a libretto adapted from Franz Kafka’s novel by Christopher Hampton and music by Philip Glass.

The basic plot of The Trial should be familiar to many people, even if they haven’t read the novel. A bank clerk, Joseph K., wakes up on his 30th birthday and demands to know why the maid hasn’t brought his breakfast. Instead of coffee and toast, he’s served with the unwanted news that he’s under arrest, and his protestations of innocence are met with derision by two bowler-hatted officials who proceed to eat his breakfast and steal his underwear. (If I learned anything from this performance, it’s that nothing gets a laugh out of a St. Louis audience like an old-fashioned pair of men’s underpants.)

From this point on, Joseph K.’s formerly orderly life spirals into absurdity. Everyone is busy having illicit sex, the magistrate’s books turn out to be pornography, there seem to be courts everywhere but they’re never in session when he reports, and no one will even tell him what charges he is facing. A painter tells him that he has only three options—genuine acquittal, which never happens, apparent acquittal, or postponement. He meets a man who has been contesting a case for 5 years, and has bankrupted and completely degraded himself in the process. It’s a terribly sad story, and also terribly hilarious, with a grim sort of humor based in the absurdities that seem to be the norm in this nightmarish world.

Joseph K. is trapped in the mad gears of a bureaucracy that cares nothing for him but won’t let him go, and in which his merits and previous successes in life count as nothing. Although Kafka began writing his novel around 1914 (it was published, unfinished, after his death), the spirit of his story is just as applicable today, as I’m sure anyone who has been caught in the hell of, say, the Ferguson court system could testify. It’s also worth noting that while Joseph K. certainly doesn’t merit the treatment he receives, he is a bourgeois snob and a hypocrite who treats other people as disdainfully as he himself is later treated.

The Trial uses only eight singers, all but one of whom play multiple roles. Theo Hoffman is the exception, because as Joseph K. he appears in every scene. He’s also distinguished from the other actors by not wearing white face makeup, as if he’s meant to be the only human character while the others are simply performing various roles in society. Robert Mellon also shines as the priest who sings the opera’s only aria, a rendition of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” Glass’ music is a perfect evocation of existential angst in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, mixing strains of dance hall tunes and Kurt Weill harmonies with his characteristically repetitive style.

The unit set by Simon Banham consists of a gray back wall with several openings and a gray rectangular floor, rotated 45 degrees, over a black stage. The wall includes cabinets that open from time to time to reveal shelves jammed with books and documents, while a window and two doors are used not only for entries and exits, but also as a means for characters not directly involved in a scene to spy on the action. Part of Joseph K.’s degradation is that he’s been stripped of his privacy, a highly valued commodity in his bourgeois world but a luxury that many in his world have never been able to afford, and they’re delighted by the chance to see him reduced to their level. Banham also designed the costumes, which are as monochromatic as the stage, and recall the days of black and white movies as well as the bleak life of one who becomes a victim of a remorseless state bureaucracy. The actors frequently recall early motion pictures as well, employing slapstick turns and exaggeratedly melodramatic expressions and gestures. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Trial is presented in repertory by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis through June 23. Performances are at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road, at Big Bend) in Webster Groves. Tickets are available at a wide range of prices, with special deals available for many groups including students, educators, and military personnel. Further information about the season, ticket availability, and special events is available from the company’s web site or by calling 314-961-0644. 

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