February 27, 2012 5:48 pm

The Death of Klinghoffer, Coliseum, London

This controversial opera shows John Adams at his best – and ought to be seen

In the event there was no demonstration. Wherever it has gone, John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer has aroused controversy on the grounds that its re-telling of the real-life drama when the Achille Lauro cruise liner was hijacked in 1985 is too sympathetic towards the Palestinian terrorists. Some productions have even been cancelled.

The result is that the opera has had to wait more than 20 years to be seen on stage in London. English National Opera’s new production does nothing explicitly to fan the flames, but the underlying questions remain. Is the political stance just? Is the murder of an elderly, disabled man a suitable subject for entertainment? Is it, quite simply, a good opera?

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Easy answers are hard to come by. As in his other operas, Adams goes out of his way to avoid telling a straightforward story. He has compared The Death of Klinghoffer to one of Bach’s Passions, as it shares the same long, reflective arias and meditative choruses that shunt the action into the background, and Alice Goodman’s self-indulgent libretto throws up its own wall of obfuscation.

All this muddies the political issues and weakens the thrust of the drama. But Adams’s music refuses to let go, pulling the audience deeper and deeper into the emotional conflicts of the story: the choruses of Palestinian and Jewish exiles resonate with the anguish of centuries past and the anxieties of the hostages are portrayed with an expressive immediacy hardly less involving. There is no minimalist note-spinning here. This is a masterful score and Adams at his best.

Next to Penny Woolcock’s gripping 2003 film of the opera, Tom Morris’s staging feels tame. It is not his fault that the political argument is not brought to a head – the hostages lack an effective spokesman to counter the terrorists’ reciting of their ideals – but its intensity should burn more brightly. The compensation is that musical standards under conductor Baldur Brönnimann are very high, with Alan Opie and Michaela Martens outstanding as Mr and Mrs Klinghoffer. In the theatre the time seems to pass slowly, but this is an opera that nags at the mind long afterwards. It ought to be seen. Controversy or no, The Death of Klinghoffer is not going to go away.

4 stars

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