Terror and passion
John Adams: The death of Klinghoffer
Christopher Maltman (Captain), Dean Robinson (First Officer), Leigh Melrose (Rambo), Yvonne Howard (Swiss Grandmother), Nuala Willis (Austrian Woman), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Molqi), William Dazeley (Mamoud), Andrew Watts (Omar), Kirsten Blase (British Dancing Girl), Sanford Sylvan (Leon Klinghoffer), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Marilyn Klinghoffer)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers
Leonard Slatkin (conductor), Paul Curran (director)
The death of Klinghoffer was probably programmed as the keynote event of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Adams weekend because it was about ready to be looked at in the context of Adams' other work, in comparative calm. Twelve years must have seemed long enough for the Gulf-war inspired hoo-ha that surrounded the original production to die down. At it turned out, after the attacks on New York and Washington, Adams and the librettist Alice Goodman were subjected to renewed criticism, often in exactly the same words as before. Yet the voices they give to the terrorists in the opera at times show a chilling insight into how they worked, and work, that others might usefully have learnt from. Looking back, it is hard to avoid the thought that Leon Klinghoffer was in an individual emblem of the people murdered on September 11, in both a moral and a practical sense: he was murdered for purely symbolic reasons (both the hedonistic cruise ship and the World Trade Center were icons of the reach of America cultural power) by terrorists who succeeded mainly because no-one could imagine that their anger would result in such horrifically logical action. Sympathetic or empathic imagination, prompted by a musical and poetic voice, is the substance of opera, and objecting to first-person statements of the terrorists in Klinghoffer is as absurd as objecting to Iago's blasphemy.
Klinghoffer, though, is for several reasons more open to criticism of its detail than any of Verdi's politically loaded operas. It was written only a few years after the events it depicts, and (in contrast to Nixon in China, almost as hot off the wire) there is little room for distancing comedy or irony: there are only irreconcilable viewpoints, held unshakably. And its libretto is far denser both verbally and in historically detail than that of a traditional opera. Adams sets the text so that it is communicated as poetic language: there is no obscuring vocal sweep or excess, and little melodrama or kitsch. An opera that is not much like an opera from the start -- Nixon only goes into verbose reflectiveness in the last act -- and that deals without defence with a subject that is non-negotiable for many clearly risks irritating a fair proportion of its potential audience. In particular, the first chorus at the start of the opera presents the visually vivid and sensual memories of Palestinian whose home was destroyed in 1948, and the second, which follows immediately, the narrative of a Jewish American visiting Israel, personified as a dying lover. This is a direct slap in the face for those who expect choruses to be reassuringly sententious or expressive in very general terms. And the implicit parallel with the opening choruses of the Bach passions, which becomes clear as the captain takes up his evangelist-like narrator's role, makes thing even more problematic. Although Klinghoffer-as-Christ is a defensible idea (Christ the suffering servant takes on the role of the arbitrarily selected scapegoat) the collectiveness of Bach's choruses is split into similar but irreconcilable camps.
Even so, Klinghoffer is not totally unprecedented as an opera. The layering of points of view, starting from the Bach passions, recalls another problem-laden collaboration between composer, poet and producer, Weill, Werfel and Rheinhardt's Propheten, also a prescient hot-button work. Closer to home, the framing figure of the captain and the sea music, as well as the up-front wordiness of the text, suggest Billy Budd, another narrative of murder at sea and moral ambivalence. (It is ironic that Britten and Crozier probably regarded themselves as radical outsiders at the time, but they were protected by the deference of the establishment towards (Britten's) home-grown greatness. In contrast, Adams, Goodman and Sellars could reasonably have seen themselves on the liberal wing of a mainstream that became increasingly demonised during the 1980s and 1990s, regardless of the international status of the individuals involved.) And Martinu's Greek passion, in its first form particularly a musically difficult tapestry of free-floating voices and scenes, offered a painful view of the contemporary issue of refugees from a cataclysmic war.
But to last an opera must provide something broadly and enduringly human, not just a contemporary resonance. Sometimes the music alone provides it, sometimes the shape of the drama or the depth of the characters. On this front, Klinghoffer depends greatly on its performance: the music serves the text, the drama is impressionistic and the characters, except perhaps for the Klinghoffers, are types, although they represent a complex reality. Sellars' original product seems to have been almost ecclesiastical, certainly ritualistic, and to have ensured that there was spectacle (including dance by Mark Morris) to deliver the emotional payload. The BBCSO presented essentially a concert performance, which exposed the wordiness of the opera but also both the beauty and the occasional longeurs of the music.
Entrances and exits were smooth, but Paul Curran, credited as director, presumably worked with the singers mainly on the superb characterization of the terrorists and passengers. What justified the work, though, were the key performances: Christopher Maltman's noble but utterly human captain, Sanford Sylvan's slightly world-weary Klinghoffer and Catherine Wyn-Rogers' prosaic but deeply moving Marilyn Klinghoffer. Maltman made every word count and held everything together (like Captain Vere) with his engagement in the past events that compromised him. Wyn-Rogers looked far too healthy and glamorous for the worn down Marilyn, but she sang the closing monologue, regretting that she didn't know when she saw her husband for the last time, with heartbreaking simplicity.
The smaller roles of the onlookers were excellently filled by Yvonne Howard as the guiltily neutral Swiss grandmother, Nuala Willis as an extremely unpleasant Austrian and the American Kirsten Blase as a scatty, pragmatic British dancing girl. The four terrorists were sharply distinguished as characters as well as for their different tones and themes. Leigh Melrose was a little lightweight as the eloquent maniac Rambo, while Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts was sinister as the hands-on Malqi. Andrew Watts (a counter-tenor in a role written as travesty) was sweet if a touch bland as the very naive young terrorist Omar. William Dazeley was outstanding as the more conflicted Mamoud, romantically inclined but driven by the murder of his family.
The BBC Singers made the choruses wonderfully lucid. Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra likewise made sense of the whole work as well as the details in a stellar performance.