“I thought this was a democracy!” bemoans Josef K to his captors early on in Philip Glass’ operatic adaptation of Franz Kafka’s famous novel about a man arrested and placed on trial for apparently no reason. Given current world events, there is a noticeable collective take-in of breath by the audience when these lines are sung by baritone Nicholas Lester.

However, other than moments like this, references to contemporary society are few and far between in this production; its Yiddish costume and claustrophobic set design instead creating the surreal world imaged by the Czech novelist. Glass’ plodding music, reminiscent of a Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht collaboration, carries us through most of the major scenes in the novel from the initial arrest to the final execution of the protagonist.

The production’s determination to stay faithful to the novel does work, as it allows us to consider what it is about Kafka that still resonates today without having that message dictated to us. Anyway, political interpretations of Kafka – that he predicted the political tyrannies of the twentieth century – have always seemed crude to me. The bureaucracy and oppression in his work are more ahistorical metaphors about being alive, rather than warnings against totalitarianism. Despite the premise of the book, there is, of course, a very good reason for Josef K’s arrest – his very existence, and subsequently ours, is on trial. Whether we live in a democracy or not, we are not spared this ordeal.

Christopher Hampton’s libretto also magnificently brings out two features of Kafka’s books that are often lost in translation or completely ignored – how darkly humorous and salacious they are. Both Emma Kerr and Hazel McBain, as Frau Grubach and Leni respectively, are wonderful in the way they both seduce and terrify the hapless Josef K.

Simon Banham deserves special praise for his starkly beautiful set design, its minimalism and triangular lighting reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s more surrealist paintings.

Sadly, the opera itself is hard work, and the fact it made me want to read the book again (for the fourth time) highlights both its success and failure as a distinct piece of art.

 

Photo by James Glossop