John Adams - The Death of Klinghoffer
English National Opera, London, 2012
Baldur Brönnimann, Tom Morris, Alan Opie, Christopher Magiera, Michaela Martens, Edwin Vega, Sidney Outlaw, Richard Burkhard, Kathryn Harries, James Cleverton, Lucy Schaufer, Kate Miller-Heidke
The Coliseum, 25 February 2012
There wasn’t much evidence of anything too controversial in the English National Opera’s premiere of John Adams’s 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, nor any sign of anyone in the audience taking offense at its treatment of politically sensitive material relating to the situation in the Middle East, yet it’s an opera that no American company has risked producing since the furore it caused on its initial run there twenty years ago. But then there are influential groups with vested interests in that part of the world and there’s perhaps not much of an appetite in the post 9/11 America for anything that treats terrorists as real people and could be seen as giving a voice to their anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiments.
Relating to the hijacking of the cruise liner the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in 1985 and the murder of an elderly disabled Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, who was shot and thrown off the ship in his wheelchair by the terrorists, what should be evident to anyone who actually listens to the work - and it seemed to find an interested, considerate and attentive audience at its opening night at the Coliseum - is that the opera’s treatment of the subject is actually a sensitive and moving account of the meaningless of the killing of an elderly gentleman that ultimately furthered the agenda of no-one. That is certainly the overwhelming impression that is gained by a viewing of the opera, but inevitably with this particular subject, things are a little more complicated and the event cannot be considered in isolation.
Where however do you start trying to set the background of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into context? How can you do it in a fair and impartial way, and particularly how can you represent it accurately in the difficult medium of music and theatre? The approach taken by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman is naturally very different from the rather more satirical view they took with their previous work Nixon in China, but essentially, using choruses and individual testimonies from various passengers, they employ similar methods of poetic reflection mixed with everyday mundanity to allude to the difficult-to-define larger picture while reminding us that these are essentially ordinary people - yes, even terrorists are people - with their own backgrounds, personalities and human flaws.
The problem with this however, and where the controversy arises, is that not everyone believes that terrorists should be given a platform to express their views or that they should even be treated as human beings. It’s abhorrent - understandably for anyone involved since this is about a real-life incident - that the four Palestinian hijackers should be able to talk about being historically downtrodden, of having suffered hardship and deprivation in refugee camps, should be shown as having caring mothers, and of being capable of expressing future hopes and dreams. Yet, if one doesn’t take the time to consider where their grievances arise from, how can it ever be possible to do treat the subject truthfully? Haven’t recent events - and it’s here that the subject of the opera is shown to be even more relevant today - shown that demonisation simply breeds more terrorists?
Showing the Palestinian hijackers as humans, seeking to provide a balanced view of terrorists on one side and innocent captives on the other, and to do so on equal terms, is a difficult enough undertaking and a risky one for such a sensitive topic, but what makes The Death of Klinghoffer an even more complicated prospect is the medium of opera itself. Music is apolitical and one of the most human of arts - it doesn’t take sides. As if it’s not controversial enough to allow the terrorists to state their case, John Adams scores their situation here with some of the most beautiful music he has ever composed. The subject is an uncommon one for opera and Adams rises to the challenge of finding a inventive means of expression, far beyond the relatively more simple rhythms of his earlier minimalist works.
Music may be apolitical, but words are another matter. Alice Goodman’s libretto for The Death of Klinghoffer however seeks to find balance in allowing both sides to express their views. That’s not as simple as it sounds and the method is accordingly difficult to define, switching between rousing expressions of cultural and national identity in choruses of historical reflection, to dealing with the practicalities and horrible banality of being in the present-time of the hijacking, with reflective outlooks on the future that both the terrorists and the passengers hope to see beyond their current situation. As much as the individual viewpoints of the events are important, it’s the soaring choral arrangements that underpin the work however, taking the divisions beyond the merely political, the Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews that open the opera superseded by Chouses of Day and Night and the Ocean and the Desert - a larger perspective that takes the work to different levels.
Tom Morris’s set design has quite a challenge in reflecting all these varied viewpoints and grander concepts, but it manages relatively well. The importance of the imagery of land and sea means mixing the sand of the desert onto the desk of a ship, but as well as allowing for those theatrical shifts in location and between memory and present, it also succeeds in bringing them together. Extensive use is made of projections, just as successfully, allowing the complex musical and lyrical imagery and the concepts to be expressed in visual theatrical terms that are not strictly literal. The simple proof of the effectiveness of the production design is in how it supports the delicate equilibrium of the work itself. The human predicament of the Captain of the Achille Lauro, the shocking fate of Leon Klinghoffer, the nightmare endured by his wife and their fellow passangers all come across with immediacy, while around them, in the dancing, in the projections, and in the choruses, the wider significance of it all is brilliantly expressed.
Just as with the score itself, the outstanding contribution to the success of The Death of Klinghoffer and the solid foundation that it is built upon, comes though the chorus work, and the Chorus of the English National Opera were in magnificent voice on this first performance of the work at the Coliseum. The orchestra under Baldur Brönnimann captured the vast, complex lyrical sweep of Adams’ score just as effectively as some of the more discordant arrangements (I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard electric drums in an opera score and the effect is strangely and no doubt intentionally unsettling). With strong choreography for the dance, as well as stage arrangements for the scenes of on-board terrorism, the sensitive but impactful treatment over the actual on-stage killing of Leon Klinghoffer was only emphasised by the fine performances of the main cast, notably from Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer and Alan Opie as Leon.
If anyone goes into The Death of Klinghoffer with any doubts or suspicions about where the sympathies of the work and the creators might lie, those apprehensions are quickly dispelled by the sensitive and moving portrayal that the work and these performances give to the figures of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer. No-one viewing this production at the English National Opera will leave it unmoved at the beautiful manner in which The Death of Klinghoffer deals with such a terrible affair.