LONDON -- No opera has been dogged by controversy over the last two decades as John Adams's 1990 work The Death of Klinghoffer. It provoked yet another boisterous media frenzy in the lead-up to its London stage premiere on Saturday by the English National Opera. Some reports suggested that protests were planned for the London Coliseum while an American rabbi and TV personality wrote a column in the Jerusalem Post denouncing the work for romanticizing terrorists. In the end a lone demonstrator holding a sign turned up (below) while the audience gave Adams an enthusiastic applause.
The opera is based on the real story of the disabled, elderly Jewish American tourist Leon Klinghoffer, who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists when they hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. Yet it was not the subject matter that has caused most of the outrage, but the fact that it takes an even-handed interest in portraying the captors and captives alike in multidimensional, historically backgrounded fashion. No mere caricatures, the hijackers are heard reciting their ideals through soaring arias and reflective choruses.
After its premiere in Brussels in 1991, Los Angeles Opera and Glyndebourne, two of the five co-commissioners, got cold feet and refused to mount it. A performance of extracts by the Boston Symphony was cancelled in the wake of Sept. 11, and the work was condemned in some quarters as anti-American and anti-Semitic. Until last year, when the Saint Louis Opera Company staged the work, it was altogether absent from American opera houses for 20 years (the Metropolitan Opera, a co-commisioner with ENO, is expected to stage it in 2014).
Not surprisingly, the Coliseum was nearly full for the opening performance, with the ENO's excellent chorus and orchestra conducted urgently by Baldur Brönnimann. In a solid cast, Alan Opie and Michaela Martens were outstanding as Mr. and Mrs. Klinghoffer, while Christopher Magiera was the ship's captain who fashions himself a peacemaker only to be cruelly betrayed by the terrorists. Among the many cameo roles, Clare Presland stood out as the Palestinian mother whose son takes the life of Klinghoffer.
The opera itself emerged as a nuanced but not unproblematic drama, wayward in its course and never quite generating the energy that makes Adams's earlier opera, Nixon in China, so memorable. Politics aside, Goodman's libretto is the source of its main difficulties. In a pre-performance talk at the Hospital Club in London on Friday night, Adams explained how he was challenged at first to create music for such a detailed (some would argue overwrought) text. He noted how the captain’s first aria contains knotty lines like: "Of navigation, thoughts take shape / And the same skill that steers the ship / Makes intellect an animal.”
Much of the libretto's source material came from the memoirs of the captain as well as other historical accounts. One admires the attention to detail but dramatically, the results fell flat at times. Adams, for his part, said that he used J.S. Bach's passions, with their mix of narrative and reflection, as a structural model for Klinghoffer. It began with a prologue of meditative choruses -- one for exiled Palestinians and one for exiled Jews -- followed by some long, rather detached narrations, all making for a slow first act. The second act, which includes Klinghoffer's murder, gathers more momentum, but here the libretto still seemed in need of an editor.
And yet, Adams’s music refuses to let go, with its glistening brass and woodwind melodies cutting through the busy undercurrents of strings like the ship in which the action takes place. Some of the big arias were especially effective, including the final storming number by Marilyn Klinghofer, after she learns of her husband's death.
What will be the ultimate place for The Death of Klinghoffer? Is it best suited for the opera stage or as a kind of oratorio in concert halls? Tom Morris’s lean but naturalistic production worked hard to tell the opera’s story by using explanatory captions and dates flashed up on the set. It was an effective approach. Indeed, whatever the flaws of this opera, ENO's decision to revive it was commendable, particularly in light of many one-dimensional portrayals of the Israel-Palestine issue seen elsewhere in the arts and media. Perhaps Adams said it best on Friday night when discussing opera's ability to capture historical events: "Opera is an emotional art form already. It only becomes amplified with contemporary subject matter."