Although it is an unfinished and in many ways defective novel, Franz Kafka's The Trial has fascinated readers for more than 80 years. Several attempts have been made to film it – notably, by director Orson Welles – and also to turn it into an opera. Danish composer Poul Ruders is the latest but probably not the last person to do so. His librettist is Paul Bentley, who also provided Ruders with an excellent libretto for his compelling operatic version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Great literature doesn't necessarily make great operas, but one shouldn't fault Ruders for setting his sights high.
This is not The Trial, however, but Kafka's Trial. Sticking quite closely to Kafka's original plot, Bentley has interlaced it with incidents from Kafka's own life – notably, his engagement to Felice Bauer, which was finally broken off when it was revealed that Kafka also was involved with Felice's friend, Greta Bloch. Bentley describes Kafka's meeting with the two women as an "unofficial tribunal," of which the outcome was that he was "hugely humiliated and hugely relieved." He forthwith returned to Prague and began writing The Trial. There's more to his unfinished novel than a tale of two women scorned, of course, but some of the novel's surreal character might be explained by Kafka's bizarre personal life.
One must not forget that The Trial is a comedy, albeit one of the blackest hue. Bentley's libretto makes that clear. For example, he introduces a group of "zanies" who arrange the sets and the props, and even participate in the action. By the same token, Ruders's music is comically grotesque, and as antic as a Keystone Kops chase scene. In fact, Kafka's Trial becomes something of a marathon, at least for this listener. This is a two-hour opera in one act (with a "prelude," really more of a prologue) with no intermissions. Pity tenor Johnny van Hal who plays the dual role of Kafka and Josef K. He is seldom (if ever) offstage, and given the difficulty of Ruders's high and awkward vocal writing, and the emotional intensity of the role, I am guessing that few singers will want to take on this challenge. I rather like this opera, but the demands it makes on performers and audiences alike don't bode well for it.
This impactful world première recording is taken from live performances in March and April of 2005. Hal's partners in extremis include soprano Gisela Stille and alto Marianne Rørholm. Both sound as frayed and frazzled as the tenor. Most of the other cast members sing multiple roles as well, so nobody gets very much rest in this opera. The presentation on CD is excellent (there is a nearly 300-page booklet), but this seems like an opera which needs to be seen to be appreciated fully, so I am hoping that there will be a DVD release somewhere down the road.
The Handmaid's Tale was a remarkable piece of work. Kafka's Trial is no less remarkable, but more has been grasped than actually has been attained, this time around.
Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle