Alan Opie and Jesse Kovarsky in 'The Death of Klinghoffer'
Alan Opie and Jesse Kovarsky in 'The Death of Klinghoffer' © Ken Howard

Much ado – too much – about rather little.

On Monday, the mighty Met finally discovered The Death of Klinghoffer, written in 1991 and performed internationally by 24 organisations since then. One might have thought that John Adams’ deceptively easy score and Alice Goodman’s deceptively precious text would wrinkle few brows at this late date. But their collaboration, predicated on the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985, has inspired local controversy beyond the passionate norm.

Protestors outside Lincoln Center distributed flyers bearing this motto: “Opera is no place for racist, anti-Semitic, terrorist propaganda masquerading as art.” The perceived problem: Klinghoffer makes the Palestinian antagonists seem too human.

An angry crowd, confined across the plaza, featured a contingent of opportunistic politicos: former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former governor George Pataki and two congressmen, none of whom seemed to have seen the opera. Unfazed, Giuliani condemned it as “factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging”.

Apparently anticipating negative agitation, or possibly capitalising on it, Peter Gelb, the resident general manager, cancelled broadcast and television transmissions. The opening (not sold out despite reduced prices) attracted some proudly hostile patrons. “Murder will not be forgiven,” yelled one, mid-performance. “Say Kaddish for Klinghoffer,” volunteered another. “Shut up,” grumbled a third.

Somehow, the show went on. The gently surreal production, seen at the ENO in 2012, was sensitively staged by Tom Morris, economically designed by Tom Pye and cannily illustrated with projections by Finn Ross. Arthur Pita devised fancy dancerly indulgences, tirelessly executed by Jesse Kovarsky. David Robertson sustained clarity and propulsion in the pit, against compositional odds and oddities. The neatly focused ensemble was led by Paulo Szot as the unhappy captain, Alan Opie as the martyred protagonist and Michaela Martens as his agonised wife.

Despite their valiant efforts, however, Klinghoffer remained a fitful exercise in repetitive cliché and narrative murk. For all its lofty intentions, and pretensions, the music often emerged mechanical, even turgid. It offered clever formulas just when it needed climactic inspirations. And – understatement ahead – the strangely nuanced word-settings hardly enhanced expressive clarity.

In all, a good production of a problematic challenge.

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