Andrew Clements 

The Death of Klinghoffer – review

ENO's new production of John Adams's controversial opera underlines its musical worth and its timeless seriousness, writes Andrew Clements
  
  

In the event it all passed off quite peacefully. The demonstration against the staging of The Death of Klinghoffer that had been predicted in some sections of the press appeared to be limited to one person standing outside the Coliseum and brandishing a rather small poster, and at the final curtain the composer, his work and English National Opera's production were all warmly received.

Twenty-one years after it was first seen in Brussels, John Adams's second opera has finally reached the London stage. This a fine, intelligent treatment of it, though some aspects inevitably underline the work's fundamental problems, which have nothing to do with its political agenda, whether real or imagined, and everything to do with the way in which the work is conceived dramatically, and the language in which Alice Goodman's libretto is couched.

For in many ways The Death of Klinghoffer is more a reflection on the infamous Palestinian hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean in 1985, and the subsequent death of one of its passengers, the Jewish, wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, than a depiction of the event itself. It's the absence of that narrative element in the text, and the effect that has on the music which Adams composed, that robs the work of a real dramatic spine. For the first act at least the score seems much closer to oratorio than opera, with much more meditation and recollection than real-time action, and the overwrought imagery and sheer opacity of Goodman's text only exacerbate it. The pace quickens in the second half – a narrative thread more or less runs through it – and the dramatic focus is sharper, but the final impression is blurred.

Tom Morris's production (designed by Tom Pye) works hard to compensate for the opera's failure to tell its own story. Significant dates are flashed up on the set, explanatory captions supply historical context, and if the effect is to make the piece seem more of a documentary than Adams and Goodman ever intended, then it's an unfortunate necessity. The stage pictures are economical, carefully managed and effective – the chorus unfurl green flags as Palestinians, carry olive trees as Israelis. Little is stylised, though some episodes are choreographed (by Arthur Pita) and enough grainy realism remains to make the true nature of the tragedy vivid.

What emerges clearly too from the performance under Baldur Brönnimann is the sheer beauty of so much of Adams's score, with its dark-hued sonorities, chromatically inflected harmonies and keening instrumental lines. The great choruses that provide the opera's structural pillars are superbly sung by the ENO Chorus, though it's a real shame that the ravishing one that opens the second act has been cut here. All of the solo roles are taken memorably too, whether it's the cameos from Kathryn Harries as the Austrian woman, Lucy Schaufer as the Swiss grandmother, and Kate Miller-Heidke as the British dancing girl, or the major contributions from Christopher Magiera as the Captain, Richard Burkhard as the hijacker Mamoud, Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer and especially Alan Opie as Leon Klinghoffer himself, who sings his final number, the Aria of the Falling Body, which Adams calls a gymnopédie, with devastating simplicity.

While the place in the repertory for The Death of Klinghoffer remains unclear – does it belong in the opera house or, perhaps slightly modified, in the concert hall? – ENO's production does underline its musical worth, and its timeless seriousness. It's a major achievement.

 

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