Adams “The Death of Klinghoffer”, English National Opera

Posted on February 26th, 2012

The defining moment in John Adams’ opera – and Tom Morris’ staging of it – comes right at the top of a long and not unproblematic evening. And it’s a moment that should give pause for even those who huff and puff before seeing and experiencing. A chorus of Palestinian exiles dissolves into a chorus of Jewish exiles and as one group disrobes to reveal the next we realise that they are the same – same chorus, same singers, same human kind. Meanwhile Adams’ compassionate arpeggiations roll out and Finn Ross’ hypnotic projections merge desertscapes with oceanscapes as half a century passes in silently judgemental captions – a devastating reminder that this conflict is a wound refusing to heal.

Adams‘ choruses are, of course, the most inspiring part of his concept for Klinghoffer and in that ENO do him proud. Through them the piece becomes a meditation on the troubles – like spirituals or chorales folded into the tried and tested form of a Passion. One almost wishes that Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman had stuck more religiously, so to speak, to that form and side-stepped the more explicit documentary dramatisation that the Achille Lauro hijacking so temptingly invites. The piece feels more oratorio than docu-drama and in that sense Tom Morris always had his work cut out.

To his credit he keeps it simple with designer Tom Pye’s huge moving panels cleverly absorbing those oceanic projections but in the next moment transforming into a wailing wall of solidarity. The filmic jump-cuts are clarified with news captions and actual photographs – accentuating the gulf between fact and theatrical fiction – but the dance elements are hit and miss with the raging “night chorus” of Palestinian outrage exploding act one against a backdrop of proliferating graffiti and swirling flags a little too redolent (though green not red this time) of a certain revolutionary musical.

Adams’ uneven score – soundly attended by Baldur Brönnimann – is at its best when it embraces the personal as opposed to the political. The big arias are truly showstopping: the Palestinian mother (Clare Presland) whose son takes the life of Klinghoffer (the excellent Alan Opie) in an unflinching double-perspective which horrifically puts us right there in the moment. And who could not be moved by Michaela Martens’ storming final aria in memory of her husband.

I still have major problems with librettist Alice Goodman’s purpler flights of fancy but I defend hers and Adams’ right to give everyone a voice. That, I guess, is the essence of Klinghoffer. Good on ENO for recognising it.

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