The Death of Klinghoffer / English National Opera – Dress rehearsal 23 February 2012

25 Feb

Was very fortunate to have been at the dress rehearsal for the new staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer that is opening this evening at English National Opera. Was anticipating it for weeks and I can honestly say I was not disappointed in the slightest.  Hot off the heels of Dr Atomic and Nixon in China, this co-production (again) with the Metropolitan Opera, ENO is becoming the London house to see John Adams’ operas.

The staging by Tom Morris largely literal and that may be a disappointment for anyone expecting a more abstract canvas illustrating the story, but due to the nature of the work I think his point of view is very valid. Any regie flourishes are kept to a bare minimum, Palestine is Palestine, the Achile Lauro is still a cruise ship, 1980s fashions are all the craze. John Adams’ opera is a work of beauty and deep contemplation. After emerging from the Coliseum into a sunny London lunchtime I was emotionally drained and moved to the core. The very vivid staging certainly helped.

The opening section is two choral pieces one for Palestinian and one for Jewish people. Morris opted for a set that is comprised of a floor surface resembling arid Middle Eastern land with seven (for this section) movable quasi walls in a textured look that are used for extensive projections throughout. They essentially bring in a naturalistic landscape as the horizon of the stage framing the action. The members of the choir are creating the olive grove described in the libretto by opening suitcases and revealing olive trees which they continue to plant in the ground. The green flag waving at this section may be the only indulgence to cliché and it is a very small and easily forgivable lapse.

Another set of identical panels lowers to create the press conference where the freed hostages are talking about their experience. This is the big moment for the Swiss Grandmother to deliver the first emotional hook. Lucy Schaufer’s delivery complete with 80s hairdo and lilac two piece outfit was wonderful; just wish she had more material to sing.

The quasi wall opens to the first of the night’s gunshots from the terrorists in the environs of the cruise ship’s restaurant, the projections on the back panels that made the landscape now have the large portholes of the restaurant with the blue sea beyond. In this production the sea becomes another character imbuing with its presence every mise en scene till the very end with its blue glow and twinkling distant lights from the shore.

The evening conversation between captain and Mamoud (one of the captors) is held at the deck which takes the form of a vaguely art deco movable prop thankfully the only presence of the mentioned birds are in the projections. This part of the first act is the most atmospheric with Adams embellishing it with Middle Eastern references as Mamoud tunes the radio to stations of his homeland.

A moment of lightness amongst the darkness is the brief aria (back in full press conference mode once more) of the Austrian Woman, expertly portrayed by Kathryn Harries, narrating how she survived the siege locked up in her cabin with just the contents of her fruit basket and a chocolate bar she bought in Greece. Adding much needed variety in both score and character development. Which concluded with the following dark hued words: Even if one were going to die. One would avoid the company of idiots. During the war I felt the same. I have no fear Of death. I’d rather die alone, If I must, though I’d hate to drown.

After this largely flippant episode we return to the deck for the conclusion of  Mamoud’s aria ‘Those birds flying above us’ a moment of lucidity and a revelation of Adams’ true intentions. The terrorists are not portrayed as faceless monsters but as human beings with longing and sensitivities that somehow have faltered, looking for a way of life that only exists in their imaginations. As Alice Goodman (the librettist) put it ‘the piece is about the destructive effects of romantic nationalism’ and the longing he describes with ‘The sun will rise, I would like to see the dawn from my window’ is a universal feeling that everyone in the audience can understand but are in conflict with the heinous methods of the terrorists. A feeling of ambivalence, unease and doubt that veils the whole work. A master stroke that makes the work an emotional journey to the dark recesses of our minds.

The night chorus closes the first act with very effective projections on the back wall surface making it look like a live graffiti wall, increasing in speed of the appearance of the drawings as the piece culminates with a crescendo.

At the interval I was feeling numb at the intensity of both the staging and the music. The full weight of the production and the subject matter is undeniable. So much so, I find it impossible anyone would think the work flippant or disrespectful. The grave situation is communicated with utmost sincerity and urgency. This is not middle class entertainment, it’s a visceral experience, a tide of emotion.

The second act opens straight in the action (with the Hagar Chorus having been cut from this staging…despite what my hive mind thought at the time, fusing the recording and the rehearsal).  The aria for Molqui and the one for Rambo (the two of the three captors) are flanking the first aria for Klinghoffer ‘I’m not a violent man’ which establishes him as a feisty man with dignity that stands up to the invaders exclaiming twice ‘You don’t give a shit you want to see people die’  against almost a triumphalist backdrop of brass. It is a chilling moment of defiance that we know too well will end up in tragedy.

Then Rambo’s aria takes on an absurd character as an anti-American rant in the shape of an incoherent speech by a religious fundamentalist. Which is swiftly followed (in press conference mode) of the British Dancing Girl, performed with exceptional gusto by Kate Miller-Heidke, describing life on board with all the prerequisite banal details such as the sandwiches served, against a backdrop of quick paced rhythmic music not unlike some intros by Queen (the band, that is). This is another expansion of the human canvas in the work and the last attempt at air-headed lightness.

The next fifteen minutes where the culmination of the on stage action, with Omar essentially being convinced to kill Klinghoffer, he grabs his gun and moves towards the wheelchair as the aria reaches its climax he points the gun and the lights go, the Desert Chorus starts, leaving the scene unresolved. A very effective, if simple ploy by Morris reverses the stage set on its head. So as, while Marilyn Klinghoffer declares her love for her husband and a typical inane pensioner rant on hip replacements and research, her husband is facing the audience with Omar holding the gun is re-enacting the scene and eventually shooting him in that position. A shocking and inevitable conclusion that makes dramatic sense despite its cruelty and immediacy. Especially accentuated by the score’s silence at the moment of his death, here being punctured by the gunshot.

The surreal aria of the falling body sang by the dead Klinghoffer is a very difficult scene to stage when one opts for naturalism. Morris’ solution was to choreograph a dancer to take the place of the body while Alan Opie sings beautifully the aria and the projected sea takes over all the projection walls right and left of the stage. For me this choreographed dismantling of the chair and body double solution seemed to jar. But thankfully the gorgeous music and singing make one forget too easily what takes place at the depths of the set.

After this dark interlude, the choir returns on stage bringing the day after the murder of Klinghoffer and the set becomes the exit point of all the passengers and terrorists, bar Mrs Klinghoffer, who has a conversation with the captain, where he reveals that her husband is dead. The libretto and elliptical music motifs are bringing this scene to life while the two characters inhabit what looks like an empty cabin. Adams allows the captain to do his exposition while allowing for Mrs Klinghoffer to gather her thoughts. Michaela Martens and Christopher Magiera were truly exceptional, the nervous energy between the characters obvious and all too painful. Her concluding aria ‘You embraced them’ is so extraordinary and powerful that it made me well up. Martens sang it with so much feeling and simplicity it was stunning an amazing actress and an impeccable vocalist.

The subject matter and the staging are bound to be challenging for many people. But we cannot forget how art is not meant to just depict fluffy subjects that do not touch our everyday lives. It is also meant to illuminate the dark recesses of the wretched intentions and perversion of the human mind. This opera does makes us question the very reason one human would maltreat another in that way, informed by doctrine and hatred. Good and evil are slippery to define in this work as they are in reality. You will not find cartoonish baddies and totally innocent victims. What is on stage is an exposition of a slice of human life not idealised, not made rounded for public consumption. The flaws of the characters are the main focus of this work and that is the reason why it is such compelling viewing. It is about humanity and humanism not politics. The cast and orchestra under the energetic direction of Baldur Brönnimann offered their all, they deserve to play to a full house for every one of the seven performances.

Read more

Article on the history of Achille Lauro and its eventual sinking in 1994

Interview with the librettist Alice Goodman in The Guardian

Jessica Duchen’s piece on the work in The Independent

Tom Service’s blog on Klinghoffer in The Guardian

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8 Responses to “The Death of Klinghoffer / English National Opera – Dress rehearsal 23 February 2012”

  1. Gerry Dorrian 26 February 2012 at 4:28 am #

    I attendied the première and, like you, left drained. I thought Alice Goodman’s libretto was complex and nuanced and did not caricature, patronise or demonise either side. The one point where I was worried was nothing to do with the opera – it was during the curtain-calls, when the four singers who played the hijackers came on stage, and the applause went from enthusiastic to rapturous. Is it possible that the commentators who have slated this multi-faceted work as anti-Semitic/anti-Zioninst are causing friends of Israel to stay away, creating skewed audiences?

    • George aka OperaCreep 26 February 2012 at 8:52 am #

      Glad you thought so about the libretto! As for the curtain call I’d think it would be an expression of acknowledgement of the risk they took to be the baddies in an already loaded with controversy work. I am grateful to ENO as a whole for taking such a risk for a work of this quality.

  2. Mirto_P 26 February 2012 at 5:25 am #

    If you haven’t seen, you must get hold of the Penny Woolcock film adaptation. Adams (who conducts) apparently wasn’t thrilled with the cuts (mostly chorus material), but it’s amazingly done, astonishingly not dubbed (the feature on how they achieved this is fascinating). Sanford Sylvan and Yvonne Howard are amazing as the K’hoffers, and it was my happy introduction to Christopher Maltman, the Captain. Glad this ENO staging was so good.

    • George aka OperaCreep 26 February 2012 at 8:55 am #

      I remember watching it on Channel 4 at the time but it was long before my operatic maturity…it registered more as a documentary than a work of music. Will surely have to get hold of it. Also hoping that the ENO production will be at the very least on BBC Radio 3.

  3. mangofantasy 26 February 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    I’m quite a fan of John Adams. I remember evenings at the Huddersfield festival back in the late eighties when the controversy was all about the music – modernists v postmodernists – with a lot of vitriol being expressed about what Adams was doing artistically. Since then, I’ve been really impressed with the way he uniquely has found a way forward from the minimalism of the seventies with integrity and subtlety, remaining searching and challenging yet within an accessible language – unlike in my view Glass, Reich or Andriessen.

    So I too was really excited about this production. But I didn’t get anything like as much out of it as you did, and felt really disappointed by the end last night. I’ve read several enthusiastic responses, including Jessica Duchen’s this morning, and I just keep reading what I hoped the opera would be for me, not what it actually was. My whole party of 4 were quite negative in different ways. I just don’t get it!

    I liked:
    – The orchestral score, rich and imaginative and intelligently growing in depth and darkness through the opera. I often felt I would have been happy to listen to the orchestra alone. Points forward to the superb Chamber Symphony.
    – Thoughtful, sensitive balance in represntation of the different political and personal voices in the drama. Given the limitations of opera I thought the balance of humanity and horror were absoloutely right. Political objections to this opera are utterly silly.
    – Great that the ENO had the courage to put it on.
    – And I quite liked some of the more sensitive moments – the top terrorist’s nocturnal conversations with the captain; Klinghoffer’s falling aria.
    – I liked the video aspect of the production.

    I disliked:
    – The text, which seemed an awkward alternation of dull conversational nattering and flights of poetic fancy that were incomprehensible on stage and more suited to a song cycle. Too many words, by far. No surtitles would have helped.
    – I found a lot of the vocal writing (especially solo voices) really quite dull. I just think Adams writes better for instruments. And I appreciate that this is in general a really difficult problem for modern opera!
    – Lack of emotional development of the characters. Each character only popped up for a few minutes here and there and so I didn’t really care about anyone. I felt the piece made an awkward balance between the realistic / personal and the abstract / meditative. I needed more of one or the other.
    – And I have to say I wasn’t persuaded by either the production or the performance. The choruses were just all too much watching the ENO chorus shuffling around being the ENO chorus. I thought they sang quite well, but needed more energy and precision. Overall lack of magic.

    But finally, I do think there is more for me to discover in this piece and I would like to give it a second try. I’m actually enjoying it a lot more this morning on spotify, especially the choruses.

    • George aka OperaCreep 26 February 2012 at 12:38 pm #

      I will agree on the chorus needing more energy, but as I saw the dress, did not mention it! Will try to pop in to a ‘proper’ performance and will bring an opera virgin…looking forward to her reaction to it. Thanks for such a thoughtful reflection on it, and much more cogent than my mumbles above. I’m on the opposite route to yours with Adams, I have not given him enough of a chance before and will rectify that! Already booked for his LSO concert early next year. The musical idiom for Klinghoffer is, as you said, a great balancing act from his hard core minimalist mode to something more open and traditionally operatic. The final scene was one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever witnessed live. I’m delighted how the conversation about the work has gone away from the politics to the artistic merits which is slightly unexpected. As in this country we love a little too much the Daily Mail school of music reviewing 😉 

      • mangofantasy 26 February 2012 at 12:57 pm #

        Yes I agree, it’s great to see how the debate has shifted to the music from the politics. The Lyon opera chorus sound superb on their recording. And you mentioned the Hagar chorus – did you actually get that in the rehearsal? It was cut last night apparently.

        Klinghoffer was definitely a turning point for Adams (perceptive comments on this in today’s review by … er … Igor Toronyi-Lalic) and after it he seemed to find a new expressive freedom. Do try the Chamber Symphony if you get a chance, which exemplifies that new freedom.Very much Klinghoffer meets Tom & Jerry.

        I’ve also booked for the 2013 LSO event – see you there!

      • George aka OperaCreep 27 February 2012 at 9:54 am #

        I’m afraid it was my hive mind in the morning…fusing the recording to the goings ons on stage. The Hagar Chorus was cut from this staging. And have amended above to reflect my idiocy 😉

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