Terrorists Push Elderly Jew Overboard in ‘Klinghoffer’: Review

Alan Opie and Michaela Martens in "The Death of Klinghoffer" by John Adams at English National Opera in London. The 1991 opera deals with a real-life Palestinian hijacking in 1985 in which a wheelchair-bound holidaymaker was murdered. Photograph Richard Hubert Smith/ENO via Bloomberg

The opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” has lyrical beauty, ear-caressing orchestration, and an incendiary subject matter. It still doesn’t quite fire up.

A new production at English National Opera in London proves John Adams’s 1991 work to be an intractable and undramatic creation.

It tells the story of a real-life hijacking. In October 1985, four terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Front boarded the Achille Lauro cruise liner near Alexandria, and demanded the release of prisoners in Israel. During the siege they shot wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jewish-American on holiday, and threw his body overboard. Eventually, the captain negotiated a safe passage for the terrorists off the ship, their demands unmet.

The opera has attracted criticism for its singing terrorists, and for romanticizing acts of brutality. This is unfair. The terrorists are humanized and not reduced to cartoon demons, that much is true. Their behavior is also shown to be filled with horrific violence and monomaniacal rage by librettist Alice Goodman (a Jewish-American poet who is now a priest in the Church of England).

Sluggish Choruses

No, the problem is that the story has as much inertia as the huge Achille Lauro liner itself. There are brief moments of action and confrontation. The rest of the time there are dramatically sluggish choruses sung by exiled Arabs and Jews who keep wandering onto the stage in the middle of things.

There are also long explanatory stretches of narration, sung directly to the audience, by passengers and members of the crew. Whatever happened to “show, don’t tell”?

It’s odd that Leon and his wife Marilyn don’t sing until well after the intermission. It feels as if composer and librettist had decided the unfortunate pair was somehow incidental to the exposition.

Characterization is not at a premium here. Everyone -- terrorist and victim alike -- sings in poetic language so elliptical that it sometimes sounds like crossword clues. “Study the laws they celebrated knowing this house the living and dead,” sings the deceased Klinghoffer as his body (performed by a dancer) gently sinks into the water. Could somebody translate that into English?

Buttery Baritone

If Klinghoffer’s aria verges on strained poetic gobbledygook, musically it’s one of the highlights of the evening: That’s the paradox of the work. The aria sounds languorous, glittering, full of pathos, and baritone Alan Opie (Klinghoffer) sings it with a buttery seductive voice.

Good music does not a good opera make, more’s the pity. Director Tom Morris (“War Horse”) confuses matters more than he helps them. He sets all the to-audience narrations in 2004.

A text screened on the wall tells us that the survivors of the hijacking have gathered to share their recollections in a news conference. Their arias regularly punctuate the early parts of the opera, and provide several “what-why-how?” moments. Why 2004? Why are they all dressed in clothes from 1985? Why is the press conference device abandoned toward the end of the opera?

Designer Tom Pye uses three moveable walls made from high concrete slabs to create a flexible and minimalistic acting space, which works well enough for the various shifts of location. Explanatory texts and footage of nautical scenes are screened onto the slabs.

The performances, bar one of the terrorists, are all good. Richard Burkhard is dreamy and menacing as hijacker Mamoud, and warm-voiced Christopher Magiera portrays the Captain with weight and authority. Michaela Martens is a powerful Mrs. Klinghoffer.

Conductor Baldur Bronniman draws a polished sound from the orchestra, and the hushed tone of the sopranos in the opening chorus is memorably ethereal.

That’s all great. If there could also be some drama and characters, it might become an opera.

Rating: **.

“The Death of Klinghoffer” is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and is in repertory at English National Opera through March 9. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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