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Opera review: 'Death of KIinghoffer' at English National Opera

March 5, 2012 |  3:54 pm

The Death of Klinghoffer, Alan Opie, Jesse Kovarsky, 3, (c) Richard Hubert Smith
English National Opera mounted the first production in England of “The Death of Klinghoffer” last month. Protests had been promised over the staging of John Adams' opera about the American Jewish passenger who was killed and thrown overboard in his wheelchair on a hijacked Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985. There were fears that performances would be disrupted by demonstrators who felt that the opera expresses elements of anti-Semitism. But on Feb. 25 a mere lone figure showed up with a placard in front of the London Coliseum, ENO’s home.

A week later, when I attended, the picketer had packed up. This was simply a Saturday night at the opera, and one for which there was now some buzz. The reviews were highly favorable of what is an inoffensive, realistic production by Tom Morris, mastermind of “Jerry Springer, the Opera” and “War Horse.”

Despite an unfortunate lack of cultural nuance and context, the theatrically vivid performance of Adams’ intense and moving score makes a strong point. Most important of all, this is probably the right production at the right time. The Metropolitan Opera will ship it to New York in a coming season (no dates have yet been announced), and certainly both companies are eager to avoid the charges of anti-Semitism that have made “Klinghoffer” an operatic hot potato.

One reason this was England's first staged “Klinghoffer” was because Glyndebourne Festival Opera, which had been one of the companies to commission the opera in 1991, got cold feet when it came to stage it. Another co-commissioner, our Los Angeles Opera, has also never dared present the opera. Productions have been rare after 9/11 -- the main exceptions being the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and, last summer, St. Louis Opera Theatre, along with a brilliant British television film of the opera.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, who now lives in London, happened to be in the audience at ENO Saturday night with his wife, Jane. They were, he said at intermission, “‘Klinghoffer’ virgins.” Although one of Adams' most important champions, Salonen noted he had never, during his 17 years as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director, had the opportunity to see the opera.

As originally conceived by director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman and Adams, “Klinghoffer” was half sacred passion (like Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”), half opera. That’s a strangely Christian form for a contemplation of the conflict between Jews and Muslims.

The 1985 incident began when suicide bombers booked passage on the Achille Lauro as a way to get into Israel, where they planned to stage an attack. They were accidentally discovered with their weapons on board and improvised a clumsy hijacking.

The passion form was a way for the opera’s creators to present the conflict in more universal terms, as a meditation on the death of the passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Sellars' original production was often static and ceremonial, played against an intricate sculptural frame work of a ship (which was destroyed in an L.A. Opera warehouse fire) and which relied on exquisitely ritualistic choreography by Mark Morris.

The controversy was that Goodman’s spectacularly literary libretto permitted Palestinian principles to be expressed with the eloquence of great Arab poetry. The opera's terrorists can display unspeakable brutality yet appreciate beauty. One important function of the work is to make you wonder where they came from and how they came to be the way they are.

Sellars made it clear from the start that the point of “The Death of Klinghoffer” was not to stage what was shown on CNN. But Morris stages what was shown on CNN. He takes a documentary approach (clearly influenced by the "Klinghoffer" film), explains events and goes for the obvious (particularly in dramatizing the shooting of Klinghoffer, which was intended to be offstage). The banal imagery of Arthur Pita’s choreography (near naked bodies holding branches symbolizing Israelis planting trees) should be dumped before the production comes to New York.

But the musical performance is compelling. Alan Opie is a believable, human Klinghoffer, and Michaela Martens softens Marilyn Klinghoffer’s anger into an affecting sorrow deep as the ocean. Christopher Magiera captures the Achille Lauro’s captain’s cluelessness, thinking he can mediate between both sides while not quite grasping either one.

The production -- with minimal sets by Tom Pye and effective projections by Fin Ross -– occasionally has a “Titanic” feel. The passengers are more clearly etched than the terrorists, which, along with Baldur Brönnimann’s propulsive conducting, produces, at least, gripping drama.

Maybe that’s where we need to start with “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Once hooked, an audience might be enticed more fully into the work to figure out what it all means. We know by now that not figuring it out over the past two decades has done nothing to improve the situation in the Middle East.


Seeking answers in an opera

Music review: 'Death of Klinghoffer' at last

L.A. Festival to open sans 'Klinghoffer'

--Mark Swed, from London

Photo: Jesse Kovarsky (Omar) and Alan Opie (Leon Klinghoffer) in English National Opera's new production of "The Death of KIinghoffer." Credit: Richard Hubert Smith/ENO