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Phillip Glass’ The Trial review at Theatre Royal, Glasgow – ‘economical but effective’

Nicholas Lester and the cast of The Trial at Theatre Royal Glasgow. Photo: James Glossop
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Philip Glass, who turns 80 at the end of this month, is one of the most successful, as well as one of the most prolific, opera composers of our time. What is apparently his 26th opera, The Trial is based on the novel by Franz Kafka that became one of the defining texts of the 20th century, poised halfway between a dream and a nightmare.

If only because of its iconic status, it’s an ambitious choice of subject. The experienced Christopher Hampton – who has collaborated with Glass on two previous operatic works – provides the skilful libretto. The black comedy had its world premiere at the Linbury Studio Theatre in 2014 under the auspices of Music Theatre Wales – a leading proponent of contemporary works.

Now Scottish Opera – co-producer as well as co-commissioner of the piece – brings Michael McCarthy’s economical but highly effective staging to audiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Coming to it afresh, it’s hard not to notice how awkward Glass’s setting of the English text is – something that does not apply to works such as Satyagraha or Akhnaten, which set ancient or exotic languages. Often the vocal lines sound as if merely stuck onto an existing instrumental texture – here Scottish Opera’s Head of Music Derek Clark maintains perfect control over the 13-strong ensemble drawn from members of the company’s orchestra.

The vocal lines in themselves are not especially characterful either. Unlike the much bigger works mentioned above, this is surely not one of Glass’s works destined to linger in the repertory.

That said, not only the staging, to clear designs by Simon Banham atmospherically lit by Ace McCarron, but the individual performances maintain a high level. The evening’s doughty lynchpin is baritone Nicholas Lester as Josef K, but the other cast members, all of whom take two or three roles, make strong individual impressions.

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Philip Glass’s Kafka opera’s first performance north of the border outshines the piece itself