By Susan Elliott
NEW YORK — The relentless historical and emotional weight of The Death of Klinghoffer is carried not by the victim, Leon Klinghoffer, or even by his Palestinian executioner, Mamoud. It is the opera’s chorus that is charged with recounting history’s carnage and expressing the sorrow, the sickness, and the rage at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the Prologue, first the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and then the Chorus of Exiled Jews set the scene, each telling its story. The choristers are all women, hovering about in their long, earth-colored robes against an ever morphing video backdrop of desert. Slowly, the number “1948” emerges on that landscape; as the years progress, straight through to 2014, the orchestra keens, growls, explodes, a reflection of the continuing strife.
This is the emotional journey that composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman explored in their 1991 opera, which opened amid protest on Oct. 20 at the Metropolitan Opera. That the core of their exploration is based in historic fact — the real-life hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985 by four Palestinian terrorists and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish-American passenger — has made the opera the most controversial of its generation, and probably for many more to come.
Which is unfortunate, because there is much here to savor, and it has little to do with glorifying terrorism and anti-Semitism, as its detractors claim.
Klinghoffer is Adams’ second in what has been described as his “trilogy” of current-events operas, all three now in the Met’s repertoire: Nixon in China (penned in 1987), Doctor Atomic (2005), and Klinghoffer. The original production, staged by Peter Sellars, came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991; this one, first mounted by the English National Opera in 2012, represents an entirely different approach, thanks largely to British director Tom Morris’ success in weaving the aforementioned emotional commentary into the narrative.
Technology plays an important role here: Finn Ross’ video projections — the desert, the ship’s wake, gently shifting clouds to create the ship’s rocking motion — are the perfect complement to Tom Pye’s spare, moving-wall set.
Not that he needed to, but Adams, with Klinghoffer, cements his credibility as a theater composer. As the story line unfolds, alternating between the Captain’s after-the-fact recollections and vivid flashbacks, the events are mirrored in the pit: A single violin line is poignant commentary on the women’s keening in the Prologue; hollow dollops of percussion combine a sense of dread with suspense as the Captain awaits clearance to dock in Syria, where the terrorists have promised to disembark; great waves of brass encapsulate the panic and fear of the passengers; screeching winds the searing anger of the hijackers.
Morris’ physical realizations of Goodman’s libretto provide a clarity this opera might not otherwise have. Shortly after Mamoud, the leader of the four Palestinian hijackers, fires his gun into the air, sending the passengers skittering across the ship’s deck into a huddle, the two women’s choruses emerge from either sides of the back of the stage, walking slowly in their long, dark robes in two straight lines diagonally across the stage, articulating the thoughts of the characters as they walk past them. It’s an eerie effect.
Given the unrelenting darkness of its subject matter, Klinghoffer is long at nearly three hours. An attempt to provide comic relief by giving the British dance hall girl, one of the passengers (there were a troupe of them on board, apparently), a chirpy aria does little to leaven the proceedings; it seems wildly out of place. And some of the individual characters’ navel gazing grows tiresome after awhile.
Paulo Szot’s 2008 Tony Award-winning portrayal as Emile DeBecque in South Pacific has certainly goosed his opera career. But as the captain caught between protecting his passengers and his own honor, he played a once-powerful man no longer in command perhaps too well, and his voice occasionally grew quavery. Alan Opie was reprising his role as Leon Klinghoffer from the ENO production, and he did it brilliantly, the brave 69-year-old stroke victim scolding the terrorists from his wheelchair, saying what no one else dared to:
“Old men at the Wailing
Wall get a knife
In the back. You laugh.
You pour gasoline
The bus to Tel Aviv
And burn them alive.
You don’t give a shit…
You just want to see
During the Aria of the Falling Body (sung by the slain Klinghoffer), shadowy figures downstage throw his wheelchair, now in pieces, overboard in slow motion.
In the libretto, his murder takes place offstage. Not so in Morris’ hands.
As wife Marilyn Klinghoffer, mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens gets the endurance prize, especially in the second act when she chatters on about her aching joints, unaware that her husband is being killed below deck. At the end of the opera, after the captain tells her the tragic news, she is furious, her aria not so much a melancholy rumination as an angry tirade of inconsolable grief.
In his house debut, Aubrey Allicock sang Mamoud, the Palestinian group’s tough-guy leader who, on his first night on board as the Man in Charge, sings of his family’s tragic end, including his brother’s decapitation, at the hand of the Israelis. It is one of the moments where Goodman shows us the enemy as human being. The towering Ryan Speedo Green was well cast as Rambo, the real thug of the quartet, who declares “America is one big Jew” in his aria and thinks nothing of kicking a prone passenger across the deck.
Omar, the fourth Palestinian, was apparently written as a trouser role for a mezzo-soprano; in this case, dancer Jesse Kovarsky threw his body into contortions of despair (choreography by Arthur Pita), as Maya Lahyani, here identified as Palestine Woman, sang the part with a dark, well-rounded tone.
Conductor David Robertson and his brilliant forces in the pit embraced with gusto the huge stylistic range incorporated in the score, from skeletal accompaniment to long lyrical lines (uncharacteristic for Adams at the time) to minimalism’s driving throb.
As to the pre-show behavior of the hundreds of protesters clustered behind police barricades across the street, they exercised their First Amendment rights through loud speakers, with signs demonizing Met general manager Peter Gelb and Adams, and chants of “shame, shame.” They managed to attract former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a couple of other pols who seized the opportunity for self-aggrandizing PR, as well as news media unaccustomed to trips to the opera house.
Things remained fairly tame in the auditorium, aside from a couple of obscenities, boos, and chants of “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven.” Perhaps not, but thanks to John Adams and Alice Goodman, it will certainly never be forgotten.
Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of MusicalAmerica.com.