Political controversy has arrived at the ENO with the staging of John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer. This contemporary opera covers the 1985 hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of the cruise ship Achille Lauro as it docks in Alexandria. The crisis ultimately results in the murder of a disabled Jewish-American, Leon Klinghoffer. The opera's 1991 debut caused outcry, with accusations of anti-Semitism and pro-Palestinian bias. In the event, the London debut directed by Tom Morris, passed peacefully, with only a solitary protester at the door brandishing a rather small placard.
Adams’ work is not a narrative of events, rather an attempt to provide historical background interspersed with action from the ship and later recollections from the survivors. The activity is relayed through three discrete groups, the Palestinian people, the Jewish people and the cruise passengers. The first act is seen mostly though the Palestinian and Jewish peoples; it lacks any real action and, although we appreciated Adams’ mournful and reflective music, we’re relieved when the pace picks up in Act II.
Alan Opie portrays Klinghoffer strongly and his dignified, calm manner contrasts to the terrorists’ thuggish, brutal outlook. There are also some strong performances from Christopher Magiera as the Captain and Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer. Alice Goodman’s libretto is patchy: some poetical moments are let down with those that are overwrought and others that are downright opaque. Light relief is provided by a British dancing girl: her dizziness and complete failure to recognise the enormity of her predicament contrasts to the grim unfolding of events.
We like Finn Ross’ video-projected setting: flicking from desert scenes, to swirling seascapes, Syrian coastlines and the decks of the fated Achille Lauro. The projection of news flashes and narrative is required to fill gaps from the opera and these snippets help us make sense of events. We’re less sure about some of the dance scenes which seem a little awkward, specifically that of the terrorist in what appears to be a limbering up routine in preparation for murder.
Dealing with such a sensitive and emotive subject was never going to be a walk in the park. This work is well executed, if not instantly loveable.
The Death of Klinghoffer shows at the London Coliseum on 7 and 9 March 2012.
By Rachel Phillips.