Tuesday 6 March 2012

The Death of Klinghoffer @ ENO

Following its premiere in Brussels in 1991 and subsequent New York production of the same year, American composer John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer has become a rather controversial work.  This is predominantly for its subject matter, based on the true story of a Jewish-American who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists when they hijacked an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985.  This ENO production marks the London stage premiere.

Controversy stems from Adams and librettist Alice Goodman's objective approach.  Any work involving terrorism is likely to attract a lot of attention, but Adams, angered by the portrayal of the event in the media, opted simply to give the Palestinians a voice.  Critics have accused the composer and librettist of attempting to justify the terrorists' actions, but this was not their intention.  The Death of Klinghoffer does not directly tell the story of what tragically occured; instead this is a reflective and meditative work that remains distanced and refuses to condemn either side, allowing the audience to consider their own view on the events.

It's through the pursuit of objectivity that the opera fails though.  Its very structure, consisting of seven choruses (six used in this production) interspersed between key scenes of characters reciting their experiences, is more oratorio than opera - like Bach's Passions.  These choruses are heavy-handed and aggressively religious, directly juxtaposing at the start a chorus of exiled Palestinians and a chorus of exiled Jews.  The chorus members (the same used for both religious groups) sing an outcry to the audience with graffiti and quotes splashed onto the walls through projection with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop.  By not explicitly narrating the plot, the work relies on the drama of the situation itself to create tension rather than an engaging story.  This shortcoming is only highlighted by the facts and figures projected onto the set throughout, at odds with the almost fantastical approach to presenting the events.  This isn't helped by the stilted libretto that lacks dramatic impetus.  The scenes are statically directed, the only movement provided by a sea sickness inducing ocean projection.

Thankfully, things pick up in the second half when Leon Klinghoffer, the titular protagonist, is finally introduced.  However, his depiction as a biblical martyr smacks of American bombast.  Not only must we endure his death in slow motion twice, but we are then subjected to an aria sung by the dead corpse complete with overtly symbolic choreography.  Any semblance of drama is then totally undermined with the laughable line "American: kaput" in the following scene.  In a bid to be objective, the extensive cast are given only cursory characterisation so can only be taken as a series of caricatures.  All that's left is a libretto of religious mumbo jumbo on which to hang a flimsy narrative.

What remains is Adams's score, but this too fails.  It's written typically in his tuneless, unending minimalism.  This style certainly creates intensity and heightens the meditative quality of the work, but generally lacks cadence or structure, becoming a general wash of orchestral colours.  The odd interesting chord, dissonance or orchestral mix does not a score make.  This wasn't helped by the slow tempo set by conductor Baldur Brönnimann, turning much of the music into a dirge, with orchestra and cast alike seemingly struggling with timing.  Vocally, some of the solos felt a little thin and the hammy acting belied any sense of naturalism.  The only exception was Michaela Martens as Klinghoffer's wife, who excelled both musically and dramatically in the opera's emotionally charged denouement.  It's just a shame Adams didn't give the character an equally charged melody to sing.  And I can't help but feel that Adams missed a trick by incorporating only tiny influences of middle eastern music, which would otherwise have allowed him to juxtapose the religious ideologies musically as well as dramatically.

The success of the work really depends on its presentation.  As a semi-staged oratorio, the lack of drama would be minimised and the focus on the musical mood would be paramount.  But opera is inherently a dramatic form of stagecraft.  As it stands, The Death of Klinghoffer fails to tell its story through a compelling narrative, which only serves to emphasise the shortcomings of its score.