John Adams' and Alice Goodman's 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer has been trailed by controversy throughout its twenty-one year history.
Scheduled performances at Glyndebourne and the Los Angeles Opera were cancelled after the stormy reception the opera received following its 1991 New York and Brussels performances. A 1992 production in San Francisco was disrupted by protest. The titular character's two daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, attended the 1991 New York production, describing it as 'appalling' and 'anti-Semitic'. Richard Taruskin accused Adams, in a famous attack, of 'romanticisng terrorists'.
Controversy even threatened to erupt around this latest production, in a new staging directed by Tom Morris for English National Opera, although in the end there seemed only to be one protestor outside the venue before the performance. All involved were given a warm reception at the close - particularly Adams himself.
The source of the controversy is the fact that the opera attempts to look at the issues and events surrounding the hijacking of a cruise ship in 1985 by four Palestinians - a hijacking which led to the murder of Leon Klinghoffer - from both sides and in their historical context. It does not condemn outright the actions of the hijackers, although it is very careful not to shirk away from the murder itself. In this production we witness the murder twice onstage, each time being invited to draw our own presumably condemnatory conclusions about the act. That we should have this reaction to the murder does not counterfeit the opera's other points about the very real historical context for the hijacking.
Leon Klinghoffer's daughter Ilsa recently told The Sunday Telegraph: 'What we find most offensive is our feeling that the opera attempts to rationalise the murder of our father by presenting the hijackers as poetic and romantic valiant freedom fighters, when they were nothing more than terrorist thugs'. This is obviously a perfectly understandable reaction for Ilsa Klinghoffer to have; there are very real and very pertinent questions over whether anyone should be exposed to dramatisations (and hence trivialisation) of their own personal tragedies.
But this does not speak to the opera's careful presentation of the hijacking and the murder as being contiguous but morally distinct events. The Death of Klinghoffer does not, to this audience member at least, attempt to 'rationalise the murder', instead, it attempts to investigate the historical context of the hijacking, and, following from this, attempts to depict the emotional and dramatic landscape of the days of the hijacking. (One must acknowledge that Adams excised elements of the narrative specifically depicting a Jewish family, the Rumours, onboard the liner. However, even in its original version the opera achieves a certain balance between ideologies.)
All of this surrounding noise always threatens to drown out the noises of the opera itself (as perhaps it should), but this is a steady, musically poised piece of work deserving of attention on grounds other than the political.
Considering the sensitive nature of the subject, Adams, Goodman and the original director and originator of the concept Peter Sellars chose to stage the piece in an oratorio-like framework which allows not only great shifts in time and space, but also ensures that the dramaturgy had plenty of opportunities to reflect on itself as the narrative progresses.
The Prologue balances two choruses, the first from exiled Palestinians and the second Israelis, set to harmonically static, imperious blocks of sound. Throughout the first act, the action, which is told first in retrospect by survivors of the hijacking, and then diegetically in the midst of the ship (here represented schematically by a rather basic set), is stalled by heavy and somber choruses. The choice of such a structure is understandable from certain perspectives, but it does not lend itself to dramatic intensity.
Things improve in the second act, where the arioso/chorus division collapses somewhat into a series of standalone arias and arioso/recitative passages, but the first act is something of a dramatic struggle, little helped by conductor Baldur Brönnimann's grave, solemn, sometimes even lugubrious approach to the material; the choruses need to be brought off with much more dramatic intent, and the act on the whole needs to phrased with more abandon in parts and more purpose in others, if it is to avoid stagnation.
Brönnimann brought a real clarity to some of Adams' harmonic and textural details, such as the impressively subtle amplified synth pads towards the close of the first act (these pads are used to much more arresting effect in the second half, particularly in the opera's one humorous moment, the 'British Dancing Girl's' bizarre set piece), or the dark hues of the chorus material in the first (although the ENO Chorus could have been more uniform in purpose). But Brönnimann's sense of dramatic pacing needed more honing for the problems of the opera's design to be resolved. Brönnimann's vigilant approach to the material came much more into its own in the second half, where his precision provided eloquent support for some key dramatic outpourings.
This feeling of a dramatic struggle in the first act was leavened by a few elements. The vividness of this production's narrative scenes, for example, brought a sense of momentum, whilst the highly emotively charged singing of Richard Burkhard in the role of Mamoud gave the first half some real depth. Mamoud's duet with the Captain towards the close of the first act is an emotional and musical highpoint of the production.
The blandness of the video imagery backing the survivors recounting of the hijacking in that first act, however, was inescapable. That is not to deny at the same time the effectiveness of Tom Pye's set design in other respects in creating for the production an effective scaffolding for its action. The use of captions in the video to frame different moments within the drama was also well done. Similarly, the use of dance should here be commended, with Arthur Pita giving the hijacker Omar (played credibly by Jesse Kovarsky as a devout and determined, but never joyful, young man), and the opera itself, a poetic dimension that suits the ineffable historical dimensions of the hijacking.
Christopher Magiera in the role of the captain, a stand in for the ill Neal Davies, seemed to embody the problems and virtues of the production. At first he bears a curious smile. He's handsome and generous, but doesn't quite seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation. The voice is pleasing and relatively secure without being especially vivid or robust. But it is never quite clear whether the tension between Magiera's mood and the surrounding events in the first act is the manifestation of a dramatic choice, or a dramatic deficit. In either case, the effect is to be unconvinced. However, as the action intensifies and the captain becomes engaged more and more with the political aspects of the hijacking, and with the personal plight of Marilyn Klinghoffer (Michaela Martens in an assured and forthright performance), Magiera's singing and acting grow to the point of genuine immersion into the confusing, terrifying, and unresolved world of the piece.
Alongside Burkhard, the most impressive performance of the night comes from Alan Opie as Leon Klinghoffer. Opie conveys an authority of voice and of dramatic presence that is all the more striking for being contrasted with the hijackers' general scattiness (that is with the exception of Sidney Outlaw's haughty Rambo, with whom Klinghoffer quickly comes into conflict). Worries that the character is being presented to satisfy the hijackers and our own prejudices about rich American tourists (Jewish or not) are profoundly alleviated by Opie's post-death aria, 'The Aria of the Falling Body', which is comparable to Dr. Atomic's 'Batter My Heart' as a tragic aria bearing the emotional weight of an Adams opera, where much of the surrounding musical momentum and promise finally gets resolved in a sense of real existential commitment. Opie delivers the aria with as much simple, affecting grace as he discharged his earlier music with puffed-up upset.
Photos by Richard Hubert Smith