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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

ADAMS The Death of Klinghoffer Howard Reddy, Elif Ezgi Kutlu, Charles Unice, Frédéric Antoun, James J. Kee, Hanan Tarabay, Alexander Tall, Lishir Inbar, Brenden Patrick Gunnell, Elizabeth De Shong; The Philadelphia Singers; Curtis Symphony Orchestra; Curtis Opera Theatre concert production, conducted by David Hayes, directed by Susan Fenichell; Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 18 February 2005 (BJ)

The title did not seem to me promising: the “death,” not the “murder,” of Klinghoffer, which makes the terrorist hijacking of an Italian cruise ship off the coast of Egypt in 1985, leading to the killing of a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, sound like merely an event that happened, rather than a criminal act that was committed. Doubts about the moral stance of John Adams’s opera have surrounded it, at least in the United States, from the start. Director Susan Fenichell’s program note mentioned the protests that greeted its first American productions in Brooklyn and San Francisco in 1991 and 1992. The opposition, she recounts, “centered on the opinion that, by its very even-handedness, the opera justified the terrorists’ actions and, therefore, implicitly both the terrorization of the Achille Lauro passengers and crew and the killing of Leon Klinghoffer.” As a result, though the work has had a number of productions lately in a number of European cities, and has been recorded both on CD and, two years ago, on DVD, it had until this month been performed only once in the US (in 2001, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music again) since those initial 1991 productions.

I have not previously encountered Klinghoffer, so last Friday’s one-off concert production by the Curtis Opera Theatre offered my first opportunity to come to terms with the piece, and also to form my opinion on the morality/amorality/immorality question. The performance itself seemed exemplary. David Hayes, the music director of the Philadelphia Singers, conducted with a sure and sensitive hand, his chorus covered itself with glory, the students who make up the Curtis Symphony Orchestra played with their customary precocious authority, and there were no weak links in the line-up of ten soloists. There was no ambitious staging, just a touch of stage movement – the orchestra was in the pit – and some simple but effective lighting devised by Troy Martin-O’Shea, but this was as much as was need to get the opera’s message across.

So far as that message is concerned, as it happened, I nearly deprived myself of the chance to receive it clearly. I found the long first act so tedious that I had to conquer a strong inclination to go home at intermission. For one thing, there was no characterization in the true operatic sense. All the characters sang music devoid of personal differentiation – melodic lines that could equally well have been sung by any one of them. The choral writing was powerful and atmospheric. But even here Adams’s sense of timing seemed to have deserted him, so that in the opening chorus, for instance, which laments the Palestinians’ eviction from their homes, a long gap was left at one point between two lines that belonged together, and a third line of quite different import then followed much too quickly. Add to this my inability actually to distinguish more than a few words of the text without looking at the supertitles, because both choral and solo voices were to a large degree covered by the relatively heavily scored orchestral part (itself lacing in variety), and you will understand my impulse to cut my loss of time and leave.

Well, I am heartily glad I didn’t. The second act is so far superior to the first that it could almost have been written by a different composer, or at least perhaps by the same composer at a different stage in his career. Now at last we were offered music that responded pointedly to the various characters’ situations, and a general pacing that shifted to excellent dramatic effect from phase to phase of the story. And the way in which this was accomplished has, as it happens, everything to do with informing my opinion about the work’s problematic “even-handedness.” For it was only when Leon Klinghoffer, from his wheelchair, began in the impressive person of baritone Alexander Tall to berate the hijackers that I felt I was listening for the first time in the evening to a real, individual human being. Here at last was a man, and a Mensch. His contempt for what he saw as the hypocrisy of the terrorists in citing the loss of what they saw as their unjust eviction from supposedly ancestral lands stood out in stark contrast with what we were hearing from the hijackers themselves.

From this moment everything came into moral focus for me. I do not pretend to know what John Adams’s intention was in regard to even-handedness, or sympathy, or blame. But a sentence like (I quote from memory) “The day my enemy and I sit down peacefully together, and discuss things, and work toward peace, on that day our hope will die, and I shall die” seems to me the kind of pronouncement that, in any sensibly ordered society, would be clearly seen as evil, or indeed as pure insanity. Today, thanks to the offenses that Political Correctness has committed against common sense, we are required to “get into the minds” of the perpetrators of such vileness, and even to set it on a level of moral equality with the views of those who hate nobody, and seek only fairness, and believe in the efficacy of rational discourse.

So, no, I do not think that The Death of Klinghoffer is a work of exculpation. Yes, it shows us why, justifiably or not, terrorists feel the way they do, presenting the positions of both sides with a degree of dispassion that leaves judgment to the listener. But to any listener not hopelessly enslaved to parti pris only one judgment – though in all conscience a complex one – is surely possible.

Postscript: Since I wanted to respond to the work itself without being swayed by even the composer’s own account of his purpose, I have deliberately finished writing the above review before reading John Adams’s statements about The Death of Klinghoffer in an interview with Elena Park published at Andante.com in 2001. Some of his comments are particularly relevant to the point I have been trying to make.

“Terrorism,” he said, “is just the ignition point in the opera. The deeper, more complex themes are what resonate in the mind as one leaves the theater. Americans are in danger of becoming so hardened and desensitized by years of consuming the television news and the daily papers that they can’t imagine a representation of a story like the Klinghoffer event being anything other than a cliché melodrama with ‘evil’ terrorists and ‘innocent’ victims. Terrorism is evil and everyone who experiences it suffers immeasurably. But there are reasons why a terrorist behaves the way he or she does, and we would be foolish and self-deluding not to question why. . . The Death of Klinghoffer treats the murder of Leon Klinghoffer as the tragic event it was. In that sense I saw him very much as a sacrificial victim and his murder was not all that different from the crucifixion that is at the heart of the Bach Passions. Both Jesus and Leon Klinghoffer were killed because they represented something that was suspect and hated. But the opera doesn’t simply stop here; it also gives voice to the other side. We look into the minds and souls of the Palestinians and see what might have driven them to produce a generation of young men easily willing to give up their lives to make their grievances known.”

It seems, then, that Adams’s position, albeit different in emphasis, is not far removed from what his opera made me feel. Though I think the first half of the work could have been more effectively written, I am grateful for having had the experience of The Death of Klinghoffer, and grateful also to the Curtis Opera Theatre for its superb presentation.

Bernard Jacobson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)