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.
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