Although American composer John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer first appeared in Brussels in 1991, it is only now receiving London premiere. This is perhaps not surprising given its controversial focus on the real, and still relatively recent, event in which a wheelchair-bound Jewish American, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed by Palestinian terrorists.
The opera depicts the hijacking of the Mediterranean cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985 by the PLO, at the end of which all terrorists and hostages (barring Klinghoffer) walked away free. Though it takes pains to make clear that although it portrays real characters and events, it is not claiming to represent either accurately, it has, however, been criticised for showing sympathy for the terrorists, contempt for the Jewish characters, and for portraying the character of Klinghoffer in a fairly unfavourable light. Passions still run high today, as demonstrated by the lone figure protesting outside the Coliseum on opening night, but having now seen it, none of these accusations seems to be particularly fair.
The piece as a whole presents a wide range of viewpoints, and in Alice Goodman’s libretto, extremists on both sides of the Palestinian-Jewish conflict come under attack. The opera opens with a potent Chorus of Exiled Palestinians, but this is immediately followed by a similar Chorus of Exiled Jews. The weight of history on a contemporary conflict is underlined by the years ticking by on a screen. But in this desire to be balanced the opera at times seems to lose focus. For example, we hear the recollections of a woman who ‘avoided’ the hijacking by hiding in her cabin room for several days, but this simply adds historical detail rather than furthering any particular argument.
According to the opera, Klinghoffer is singled out in part because he confronted the terrorists. He asserts himself as a simple man who has always kept out of trouble, and he denounces the hijackers for being so hate-ridden that they will even kill the innocent. The terrorists in turn associate Klinghoffer with all the crimes of the Jews against the Palestinians. The terrorists are not in any way romanticized, nor is Klinghoffer, though he emerges as the more noble character.
The ship’s Captain keeps Klinghoffer’s subsequent death a secret from all onshore authorities. He does this because, if it seems that no-one has been harmed, then it remains possible for the terrorists to negotiate safe docking for the ship, therefore ensuring everyone else lives. This is hardly a selfish act, but when we see the terrorists departing triumphantly at port, and learn that the passengers (who, in the opera at least, are unaware of Klinghoffer’s death) even applauded them, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Far from being disrespectful to the victim, however, the point that the death of an ageing, disabled man was seen as something that could legitimately be swept under the carpet is one that should make an audience feel guilt and unease.
As with John Adams’s other operas – Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic – the music has a minimalist quality. This can be tantalising, but here – especially when coupled with the slow-moving pace of the first half – it is not exactly captivating. It also allows little room for the cast to shine vocally, although Christopher Magiera as the Captain, Richard Burkhard as the hijacker Mamoud and Michaela Martens as Klinghoffer’s wife do their best. Alan Opie, as Klinghoffer, commands the stage from the moment he opens his mouth, although – significantly – that only happens in Act Two. For the entire first half Klinghoffer simply appears alongside the other passengers, identifiable only through his wheelchair. This, in itself, is haunting because long before we become acquainted with his character, there is an acute awareness that we are about to witness the demise of this quiet, seemingly insignificant old man.
Tom Morris’s direction is confident and perhaps the most satisfying element of the production. Tom Pye’s sets, in which concrete slabs vie with hypnotic projected images of the sea, and Arthur Pita’s wild choreography are also powerful. A work like The Death of Klinghoffer was never going to make for a comfortable experience, but this English National Opera production is thought-provoking if not entirely unproblematic.