Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Review 2017 – The Trial: Heroic Conducting Leads to Strong Production of Phillip Glass Opera

This is the closing weekend of the Opera Theater of St Louis’ 2017 season, and the singers and musicians are holding nothing in reserve.

That was evident at last night’s performance of “The Trial” by Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton, based on Franz Kafka’s iconic story of bewilderment and dysfunction. The work has been substantially revised since it debuted in London in 2014, so this has been billed as its “American premiere” and the composer himself was in the audience opening night. Glass himself apparently insisted that some of his own music be cut to facilitate the work’s dramatic flow. Glass’ style of composition, often described to his chagrin as “minimalism,” in which changes in tempo, dynamics, and harmonies can occur abruptly and seemingly randomly, would seem more amenable to alteration than say Mozart’s, in which every note seems to be pre-ordained by God himself and utterly incapable of being anything else. But there is an undeniable sense of building and layering and purpose in Glass’ music, with wave after wave of alternating fifths and fourths creating the musical equivalent of the unbalance the protagonist feels upon learning he has been arrested and charged with a crime whose nature he will never know. It could not have been easy for him to make sacrifices to his score to increase the work’s dramatic effect. One wonders whether he didn’t have his own “Too many notes, dear Mozart” moment before committing to the cuts.

Herculean Conducting

The Herculean task of keeping the musicians and singers together in this complex, unfamiliar score was shouldered by conductor Carolyn Kuan, who, in addition to managing the dizzying variations in tempo and mood, was constantly feeding cues to the pit and the stage. By one account, Ms. Kuan was required to provide up to four times as many cues as normal, because people simply weren’t sure when to come in. It’s hard to imagine a Queen of the Night not knowing when to start “Der holle roche”, or an oboist dependent on their cue to come in in “Dove sono,” but that is the nature of Glass’ music, particularly when the singers and the orchestra are working at cross purposes in a way you would just never hear in Mozart. Ms. Kuan seems to be building a career on summer festivals, as she previously conducted “The Magic Flute” at Glimmerglass and “Dr. Sun Yat-Sen” in Santa Fe. Her ovation was the largest of the night, and deservedly so.

The Production

The stage was simply set for the opening scene: just the bed in which Joseph K. (Theo Hoffman) awakens on his 30th birthday. But rather than being served breakfast by his housekeeper, he is awakened and arrested by two policemen (Joshua Blue and Robert Mellon) in bowler hats and white face, looking for all the world like a pair of Luckys with nothing to do but wait on the accused. They mean him no harm, they are not personally invested in his case: they are just doing their job. Which in the hands of director Michael McCarthy, seemed to be rather the point of the opera: that the institutions which are intended to protect us are divorced from the humanity they are supposed to serve, and individual accountability is lost, whether that of Joseph K, who never does find out the nature of his crime, or the theater of the absurd guards, whether performing their “duties” mindlessly or being flogged for performing them. Without being too heavy-handed or making any obvious political references, the crux of the entire evening for me was the shouted line to the effect that “lies have become the new normal.” While “The Grapes of Wrath” (to be presented as the final piece of the season on Sunday, June 25th) may have more overt political content, it would be hard to top “The Trial” when it comes to commenting on the dangers to the individual when political institutions break down and fail to perform their most basic functions.

Five additional singers performed a variety of roles, exiting the stage and then re-entering with a beard (even the women) or costume change, adding and subtracting furniture and props (at one point stacking chairs in an unusable pile on a desk, emphasizing the subversion of the natural order and the breakdown of the simplest human comforts), addied to Philip K’s confusion. It also, I suppose, contributed to the sense of futility that ultimately causes him to abandon his own humanity at the end of Act I, when he dismisses the cries of his guards as they are flogged as being “Only a dog,” which foreshadows his own condemnation at the end of the opera, “like a dog.”

Strong Diction

The ensemble was very strong, with special credit going to English diction specialist Ben Malensek. With “side-titles” positioned well to the left and right of the stage, I was very glad I only had to glance at them once or twice to understand what was being said, and that only when a soprano was at the very top of her range. Otherwise, diction was uniformly excellent among the cast. For purists who are horrified that even today’s “Clemenza di Tito” and “Madame Butterfly” will be presented in English in St. Louis, the dramatic difference between understanding every word said, and having a vague sense of what is going through the orchestration and catching occasional references to love, betrayal, and princesses, is undeniable.

I had a bad experience with an English language “Marriage of Figaro” years ago, where the wrong vowels on the wrong notes provoked my outrage, and have largely avoided such productions since. Obviously a poor translation was not an issue for “The Trial,” but given its dramatic power, I am going into the English “Tito” and “Butterfly” at OTSL with a renewed, open mind.

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