The Death of Klinghoffer, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2012Posted on 29 February 2012
This opera has sparked controversy at its first staging in London. Why?
The essential story is that in 1985 an Italian cruise ship at dock in Alexandria was hijacked by four Palestinian terrorists, who seem to have had a confused idea about freeing prisoners in Israeli jails. Many of the people on the cruise were away at a tour of the pyramids, leaving mainly women and children on board, along with a 70-year old American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer in a wheelchair. The terrorists ended up negotiating some kind of deal for landing the ship in Syria after shooting Klinghoffer in the back and dumping him and his chair overboard.
The opera itself, created by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, serves to remind us of an unedifying spectacle in the recent history of terrorism, and the anti-semitic remarks made by the Palestinians surely do not reflect the opinions of either composer or librettist. The production by Tom Morris, with sets by Tom Pye, hews closely to the concept embodied in this creation, but does the whole thing work?
Five years ago I saw a rather lovely Adams opera called A Flowering Tree, based on an old Tamil story, a far cry from the days when he went out of his way to tackle political issues. Nixon in China was wonderful, and Klinghoffer and Dr. Atomic have been acclaimed by some. Part of the problem with Klinghoffer may be that Alice Goodman delivered her libretto in pieces, the choral parts first, and as a result the whole work is structured around six choruses, making it a cross between an oratorio and an opera.
The choral pieces are conceived in pairs, like the days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis where days 1, 2, 3 are paired with days 4, 5, 6. Here though the first pair, the chorus of Exiled Palestinians and chorus of Exiled Jews, comes in the Prologue. The Ocean chorus and the Night chorus end scenes 1 and 2 of Act I, and their counterparts, the Desert chorus and the Day chorus end scenes 1 and 2 of Act II.
Conducting by Baldur Brönnimann brought out the beauty of these choral passages, which form the musical strength of this work, and some of the solo performances came off well, particularly Alan Opie as Klinghoffer. Richard Burkhard gave a strong performance as the principal terrorist and Jesse Kovarsky did a nice dance number to complement his singing as another terrorist, but the strength of Adams’ creation is musical rather than theatrical.
Video projections by Tom Pye helped this rather static opera, sometimes showing the wake of a moving ship, sometimes the background to the choruses, and perhaps a semi-staged version in somewhere like the Festival Hall would work well too. But certainly the production fitted the opera, unlike the Rusalka now playing at Covent Garden.
Performances continue until March 9 — for details click here.