Death of Klinghoffer Lacks Cogency Despite ENO’s Outstanding Production

27/02/2012

John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera, Baldur Brönnimann (conductor), London Coliseum, 25.2.2012 (London Premiere) (CC)

Cast

The Captain – Christopher Magiera
The First Officer – James Cleverton

Passengers:

Leon Klinghoffer – Alan Opie
Marilyn Klinghoffer – Michaela Martens
Swiss Grandmother – Lucy Schaufer
Austrian Woman – Kathryn Harries
British Dancing Girl – Kate Miller-Heidke
Mildred Hodes – Jean Powell
Seymour Meskin – Philip Daggett
Viola Meskin – Sara McGuinness
Sylvia Sherman – Judith Douglas
June Kantor – Susan Burgess-James

Hijackers:

Molqi – Edwin Vega
Mamoud – Richard Burkhard
‘Rambo’ – Sidney Outlaw
Omar – Jesse Kovarsky

As protests go, the one outside the Coliseum was a non-starter. A solitary, forlorn gentleman toted a placard that said, “Disabled man murdered by terrorists”; “Murdered for being Jewish”; “Enjoy your evening at ENO”. Rumours of significantly larger protests were unfounded. Still, it raised an eyebrow. The subject matter (the hijacking of the ship Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinians and the death of one of the passengers, Klinghoffer) is certainly powerful and relevant. It was brave of Adams to set this libretto (the opera was given its first performance in Brussels in 1991), yet the prevailing impression at the end of the evening was that the subject was far greater than anything Adams could ever aspire to. While the events were powerful, the dramatic result was not.

On a technical level, the production is outstanding, with stunning projections of the sort that ENO is now justly famous. (Remember the divers in Pearl Fishers?). The impression of a listing sea liner is viscerally and effecively managed; dates and explanatory snippets are projected intelligently and helpfully. This is class, top-flight stuff but hardly surprising, as the director was Tom Morris (of War Horse fame).

There are distinct parallels between Adams’ and his librettist’s handling of the story and the Bach Passions – particularly in the vital role played by choruses and the experiencing of action in the past tense. As a Rückblick the parallel disintegrates before long. Bach’s techniques act as a referrand, to be sure – a cultural sign most listeners can recognise and relate to, but any sense of a timeless quality is lost. The librettist, Alice Goodman, seeks to attain some sort of balance by presenting both sides of the argument, and in doing so showing some sympathy with the terrorists, who emerge as humans rather than pseudo-political machines. This makes complete sense, of course, but given the temporal proximity of the events portrayed, it is unsurprising that some have not been able to take this, hence the worries over the work’s premiere.

It is on ENO’s chorus that the most praise must be lavished. This piece demonstrates their strengths, and their excellence. Adams’ opera begins with a Prologue consisting of two choruses, the “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians” and “Chorus of the Exiled Jews”. The sheer beauty of the chorus, in the second chorus particularly (which has a sort of static emptiness), was astonishing. The florid lines of the first chorus were well handled by the chorus’ higher voices. Later choruses (“Ocean”, “Night”, “Desert” and “Day”) articulate the work’s structure. All this was well handled by the conductor Baldur Brönnimann, a conductor who has previously impressed in his conducting of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre at ENO (in 2009: see my review). The balancing of textures was expert and seemed to reveal an intuitive undertanding of Adams’ brand of minimalism. (Much of the music is not as overtly minimalist as one might expect from Glass or Reich, for example.) And Adams injects a definable Romanticism into his expressive vocabulary that seems antithetical to the likes of Glass

There are two acts. The first is decidedly more static than the second. Post-interval there is more a sense of an ongoing story unfolding rather than a sequence of tableaux presented in retrospect. The excellent Christopher Magiera takes the role of the Captain with aplomb. He exudes an authority which is reflected in his confident vocal delivery. Magiera’s cantabile was gorgeous, his first act aria, “I have often reflected that his is no ship” being a case in point. His scene with the hijacker Mamoud, the young baritone Richard Burkhard, was well delivered on all sides. Adams sets the scene well here in his frozen scoring (a magnificent bassoon solo was a highlight here). Mamoud’s aria at the end of the first act, “Those birds flying above us”, carried much beauty.

Lucy Schaufer gave a strongly characterised Swiss Grandmother, from the lyricism of “My Grandson Didi” to the more energetic minimalism of the passage beginning “So I said to my grandson”. The orchestra’s sinewy, fast accompaniment was almost enough to detract from her strengths, though, such was its sense of focus. One of the passengers, an Austrian woman, was overlooked by the terrorists and stayed in her cabin for several days. Her brief recollection of these events (“I kept my distance”, Act 1 Scene 2), was most agilely delivered by the talented Kathryn Harries.

As Klinghoffer himself, Alan Opie was as secure and as dramatic as one might expect from this experienced singer. We first encounter him properly in his Act 2 aria “I’ve never been a violent man”. Opie projected real pride in presenting Klinghoffer’s Weltanschauung before revealing his (here eminently believable) anger against the terrorists.. Meanwhile the orchestra rendered Adams’ busy and difficult writing with apparent ease. His later aria, “May the Lord God and his Creation be magnified” (the “Aria of the Falling Body”) was simply beautiful. His wife Marilyn was memorably portrayed by Michaela Martens, particularly in her dusky delivery of her aria, “My one consolation”. Martens had previously impressed in her wonderfully maladjusted Judith in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (back in 2009: see review). Her angry “You embraced them”, which comes in the opera’s closing moments against some of Adams’ most purely minimalist writing, was eminently believable in its projection of Mrs Klinghoffer’s vehemence.

Adams does include some charming moments, though – the song of the British Dancing Girl, “I must have been hysterical”, from the second act, here prettily delivered by Kate Miller-Heidke, is an example of how minimalism can imply a circus-like buffoonery.

I remain unconvinced that despite its many memorable moments, Death of Klinghoffer works as a cogent whole. It’s certainly worth seeing and hearing however – particularly perhaps, for the excellence of the orchestral and choral contributions.

Colin Clarke

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