No act of violence in an opera, at least in recent times, has provoked more hostility than the re-enactment in John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer of a real-life event: the murder by Palestinian terrorists of a wheelchair-bound Jewish cruise-ship passenger. From its 1991 premiere in Brussels, Klinghoffer, which opens with a chorus of exiled Palestinians bewailing the Israeli destruction in 1948 of their homes, was attacked as sympathetic to terrorists. US opera companies treated it as a pariah.
Yet the Palestinians’ lament is followed directly by a chorus of Jews, and the central strength of James Robinson’s reflective new production for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is that it reveals the work’s even-handedness. For some, the repugnance of Klinghoffer’s murder – which here takes place offstage – ought to preclude even-handedness. That is the dilemma of Klinghoffer. Yet Robinson makes us realise that Alice Goodman’s libretto does not argue a case but rather lays out the elements of a deeply pessimistic reality. Robinson makes her approach seem the correct one.
It is a strange opera, more philosophical discourse than work of action. Characters we have never met keep cropping up to offer their impressions, often in language hard to comprehend. Adams’s music adds a layer of expressiveness to its minimalist underpinnings but is discursive as well. The scenes that hit home involve the Klinghoffers themselves – their simple yet tender moments together, and her fierce reaction to his death.
Allen Moyer’s set depicts the black hull of the Achille Lauro beneath projections of sky and sea that look more like the cold North Atlantic than the Mediterranean. As ship’s captain, Christopher Magiera compellingly articulates the voice of reason, but he doesn’t stand a chance against the fanaticism consuming the terrorist Mamoud, powerfully expressed by Aubrey Allicock. As Klinghoffer, Brian Mulligan projects considerable strength, especially in his post-murder monologue. Nancy Maultsby is shattering in conveying Marilyn Klinghoffer’s despair.
The repetitions and shifting colours of Adams’s score are handsomely captured by conductor Michael Christie and members of the Saint Louis Symphony, and the opera’s important choral component is projected surely.