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Music review: 'Death of Klinghoffer' at last (Updated)

October 19, 2009 |  2:15 pm

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Nearly 20 years ago, Los Angeles Opera added its name to the list of commissioners of John Adams’ opera about terrorism, “The Death of Klinghoffer.”  The company wrote a check and promised a Music Center production at some unspecified but not unreasonably distant time after the work’s premiere in Brussels in 1991.

The other co-commissioners -- Lyon Opera in France, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and San Francisco Opera -- mounted "Klinghoffer." L.A. Opera hesitated, perhaps worried about a mixed critical reaction and charges that the opera was anti-Semitic. The sets, while housed by the company, were destroyed in a mysterious warehouse fire, and that, apparently, was that.

But at long last, about a fifth of the opera finally reached the Music Center Sunday night, when the Los Angeles Master Chorale opened its season with five of the seven “Klinghoffer” choruses in a program that also included Mozart’s Requiem. Walt Disney Hall Concert Hall was sold out. There were no protests. Wealthy patrons did not storm out in outrage. God did not smite dead the performers. 

At a pre-concert panel with Master Chorale Music Director Grant Gershon, Alan Chapman of KUSC and Thomas May, the editor of “The John Adams Reader,” the “Klinghoffer” controversy was of so little interest that it was brought up as an aside. In fact, Gershon’s choice of Robert Levin’s completion of Mozart’s Requiem was probably the evening’s more daring move.

Much has changed since 1991. Adams is no longer a divisive composer but an American icon. His connection with Los Angeles runs deep, and this season he became creative consultant of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Audiences love him and trust him. The initial charges of anti-Semitism against his second opera are now widely understood to have been an overreaction.

The world, however, has not changed. Terrorist kidnappings of Americans in the Middle East remain front-page news.

The opera concerns the 1984 Palestinian hijacking of an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheel-chair bound American tourist. The main objection to the opera was that the terrorists were not portrayed as a monolithic evil, but rather as an uneasy alliance of thuggish killers and idealists with their own inner lives.

The Jewish tourists were pawns in a situation not of their making, but the profoundly probing libretto by Alice Goodman demands that everyone take responsibility for the Middle East mess. The murder of an innocent invalid is unconscionable, and even those terrorists who opposed violence and the ineffectual ship’s captain, who tried to mediate, are culpable. But Goodman does not accept that as justification for the suffering of innocent Palestinians.  Much in her libretto presages President Obama’s message to the Israelis and Palestinians last spring in Cairo, when he advocated mutual understanding.

The choruses in “Death of Klinghoffer” function like choruses in an ancient Greek drama by putting the tragedy in perspective. The opera opens with exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews, each providing their accounts of a biblical land torn asunder. The music is some of the most haunting Adams has written.
 
Biblical parables are at the heart of “Klinghoffer.”  The story of Hagar given sustenance by an angel has a chugging minimalist drive. In complex “Day” and “Night” choruses, the dreams and reality are intertwined just as are the destinies of two peoples on the same land. Missing on Sunday were the oblique “Ocean” and “Desert” choruses, but even so this opera's importance and relevance was unavoidable.

Gershon has a long history of Adams collaboration. He asked the audience to take the text very seriously and made the words matter in a precise yet nuanced reading. The Chorale Orchestra was valiant. The mood in the hall was somber, the audience appeared spellbound

The Levin completion of Mozart’s Requiem, which was unfinished at the composer’s death, relies mostly on the familiar version by Mozart’s pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr.  But the Harvard scholar and outstanding keyboard player known for his Mozart improvisations did add a fugue based on Mozart’s sketches for the end of the Lacrimosa.

It’s a fine fugue and in Mozart's style, but I’m of the opinion in unfinished works never to second guess a composer. Death cannot be ignored and the presence of another hand should be immediately apparent to the listener. Mozart’s Requiem cannot be made whole.

That said, Gershon led a dramatic, unified performance. The chorus sounded bold and splendid, although it often overpowered the orchestra.  The vocal soloists (Risa Larson, Tracy Van Fleet, James Callon and Reid Bruton) are members of the Master Chorale. They were not evenly matched, but they were equally all eager, which is perhaps an unusual, if not altogether unappealing, trait for mournful music.

And thus the Requiem did not only mourn Leon Klinghoffer but also served to offer hope that his tragic death might not be in vain. The next move is yours, L.A. Opera.

-- Mark Swed

Updated at 5:50 p.m.: An earlier version of this review had a misleading mention of amplification. That mention is deleted from this version.

Photo: (top) Members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale singing choruses from John Adams'
"The Death of Klinghoffer" Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall; (below)  conductor Grant Gershon. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu/Los Angeles Times

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