Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met

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John Adams’s 1991 The Death of Klinghoffer had its Metropolitan premiere this past Monday. It is the third opera of the eminent contemporary American composer to be performed at the Met, following on Dr. Atomic (2008) and Nixon in China (2011). And it is undoubtedly the most contested—pace Adams’s claim that “I did not do it to be controversial or to be provocative.”

Alice Goodman’s libretto, after a concept developed by the director Peter Sellars, is based on the 1985 Palestine Liberation Front hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro as it sailed the Mediterranean off the coast of Egypt. The next stop was to be an Israeli port; the hijackers’ mission was to shoot Israeli soldiers as the ship docked, in retribution for an attack on PLO headquarters in Tunisia. The operation went hopelessly wrong almost immediately. The four terrorists on board proceeded to separate the American, British, and Jewish passengers from the others. After hours and days of anguish at sea and when it became clear that Syria would not permit the vessel entry into Tartus, the Palestinians shot paralyzed Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer, and had him and his wheelchair thrown overboard. His distraught and fatally-ill wife, Marilyn, learned of her husband’s murder as the Achille Lauro turned towards Port Said where the terrorists, having struck a deal for their own safety, were led away.

We first saw Klinghoffer in fall 1991 during its U.S. premiere run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; we were at the Met last Monday evening. As many of our readers will remember, there were protests twenty-three years ago, as there have been in the last several weeks. Then, charges of anti-Semitism and of the romanticizing of terror were leveled at the work and its artistic team; now, these same charges have been directed with most insistence at Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.  

Our response to the current production differs markedly from the one we registered all those years ago. For one thing, we have listened to the opera often and find Adams’s “mournful, meditative score” (Alex Ross) increasingly compelling.  For another, the second section of the three-part original prologue was dropped after the BAM shows. The scene (unrecorded and absent from the published score) consists of a long exchange between a New Jersey suburban husband and wife, fictive friends of the Klinghoffers, and their grown son. The offending sketch, set in 1985, was peppered with Jewish sitcom humor and uncomfortably sandwiched between the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews, both situated in 1948.  This foundational moment, disturbingly caricatural, threatened the purity of non-partisan intention claimed by the authors. The Death of Klinghoffer, that some have called more an oratorio than an opera, now opens with the two ruminative choruses back to back.

Chorus of Exiled Palestinians

Chorus of Exiled Jews

Adams’s score owes a debt to Bach's Passions, as the composer readily acknowledges.There are nonetheless duets, passages of confrontation between characters, and extended arias rooted in the here and now of the dramatic situation that speak to Adams’s debt to the conventions of opera. Leon Klinghoffer’s long monologue, sung after his death, extends the work’s metaphysical vein. Marilyn Klinghoffer has the final say in a long aria of her own. In strongly expressive musical gestures that exploit the contralto’s lowest notes, she berates the ship’s captain, mourns her dead husband, evokes his suffering, their love, her own impending death, and accuses the world of having abandoned two unfortunate Jews. The clip that follows is sung by Sheila Nadler, from the original cast of the opera.

Marilyn Klinghoffer's final aria, "You embraced them"

Tom Morris’s Met Klinghoffer stands somewhere between Peter Sellars’s abstractions seen in Brooklyn in 1991 and the docudrama realism of Penny Woolcock’s moving picture version of the opera, telecast in the UK in 2003, subsequently released on DVD. Tom Pye’s minimalist d├ęcor (a ship’s railing, a staircase, a few chairs) relies heavily on video projections of arid landscape and water, punctuated by titles that provide the historical background. Contrary to the original production, in which everyone on stage was dressed alike, Laura Hopkins’s costumes differentiate the Palestinian from the Jewish figures, the crew, the terrorists, and the tourists. Where Sellars privileged the mythic and Woolcock the literal, Morris engages with both. To take one example, where Adams enigmatically prescribes a mezzo-soprano for the terrorist Omar, here the role is divided, enacted by a male dancer and sung by a “Palestinian Woman.” Omar becomes a plausible character whose initiation to terrorism is stylized in choreography set to an impassioned female voice. The staging, efficient, sometimes moving, faltered in the key moment of Klinghoffer’s post-morten “Aria of the Falling Body”—in front of watery projections, the murdered man merely rises from his wheelchair and sings.

The music was excellently served by conductor David Robertson, chorus master Donald Palumbo, and their orchestral and choral forces. Outstanding among the soloists was Michaela Martens, as Marilyn Klinghoffer, who demonstrated that her wide-ranging mezzo-soprano should no longer be made to serve secondary roles.

Opera fans all over the world who had looked forward to forming their own opinion of The Death of Klinghoffer after viewing the production “Live in HD” were disappointed last June when the title was deleted from the simulcast schedule. In the next post we will consider the Klinghoffer controversy and the suppression of the simulcast in light of other instances of Met self-censorship: the cancellation of Richard Strauss’s Salome in 1907 after just one performance, the banning of the German language on the Met stage during World War I, and the banishment of Madama Butterfly during World War II.

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