27 Feb 2012
John Adams — Death of Klinghoffer, London
John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer is on at the English National Opera, London.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
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Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
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On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
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This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
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Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
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John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer is on at the English National Opera, London.
Press reports suggested mass protests against John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer at the ENO. But there was just one polite demonstrator, who’d left by the end of the evening. Perhaps he saw the show. The subject is emotive, and important, but Adams’s treatment is not incendiary. It’s the nature of his music. Repetitive, ruminative cadences, which suggest contemplation rather than imposed narrative. Perhaps it’s the very anti-drama in this music that provokes response.
Sidney Outlaw as Rambo
Adams's abstracted cadences evoke blurred boundaries: endless waves on the sea, the whirr of a ship’s engine, the slow ticking away of time. Unfortunately, this music also evokes tedium. Facts about the hijack of the Achille Lauro are projected onto the stage to keep us alert, but the music is saying something else altogether. Furthermore, Adams sets text counter-intuitively, so syntax is distorted in favour of unsettling stresses in places that would not occur in speech. Because our brains don’t process language in this way, meaning is sacrificed. It’s not good when you have to concentrate on sub-titles to figure out what’s being sung. Alice Goodman’s libretto has been criticized for being opaque, but it closely reflects Adams’s musical technique. Images are blurred and shift shape. In the opening Chorus, it’s deliberately unclear who the protagonist is. Is she a young woman in love or an old woman awaiting death? Or both? It’s immaterial. She’s a composite of millions who have been exiled throughout history. When music and text are both this oblique, the thrust of the drama is lost. Perhaps Adams wants us to savour each moment in detail, as we savour life itself, knowing it won’t last, but the cumulative effect of the First Act is soporific.
Things pick up in the Second Act, when Adams frees himself from earnest pseudo-documentary. Up to this point the action has mainly been in choruses. Now we have individuals with whom we can identify. Some of the words they sing come from transcripts made at the time, others are imaginative creations. It doesn’t matter. In these arias there’s dramatic reality. Leon Klinghoffer is presented as a likeable hero, and at last the opera has human focus. Alan Opie sings Klinghoffer so he comes over as a strong, reasonable man of authority, establishing a moral compass. The Aria of the Falling Body anchors Adams’s wavering oscillations with emotional truth.
Christopher Magiera as the Captain and Richard Burkhard as Mamoud
Michaela Martens' arias as Marilyn Klinghoffer are tours de force, the last adding bite. The Captain (Christopher Magiera) handled the situation with cool headed professionalism. offering his own life to save his passengers, but Adams and Goodman don’t dilute the focus from Klinghoffer to make the Captain a hero. Mrs Klinghoffer, in her grief, can’t understand why her husband was killed without her knowing. It’s a thoughtful detail to include in the opera since in these situations no-one knows everything all the time. Fine vignettes too from Lucy Schaufer (The Swiss Grandmother), Clare Presland (The Palestinian Mother) and Kate Miller Heidke (The British Dancing Girl), so clueless that she doesn’t comprehend the enormity of what’s happening. In a much needed twist of humour, Adams adds snatches of pop music around the part.
Baldur Brönimann conducted the orchestra so details surfaced tellingly from the amorphous textures. He’s a specialist in modern repertoire and understands how the genre operates. This music is not an undifferentiated mass.
The staging, however, was much less sensitive. Directed by Tom Morris with designs by Tom Pye, it tried to give shape to Adams’s oblique non-forms by over emphasizing the literal, perhaps to create the sensationalism Adams and Goodman avoid. The dance sequences are awful, completely at odds with the story. This is not a game. It is more than just a struggle over a country, it’s part of the eternal struggle between haves and have-nots. In this production, the Palestinians raise their fists in the classic gesture of the oppressed. For a moment it looks like a Nazi salute. What the hijackers did was evil, but it does not follow that the poor should not act, whoever they might be. The scenes where Finn Ross’s video projections fill the stage are far more effective, and being semi-abstract, are more faithful to Adams’s idiom.
The Death of Klinghoffer has its longueurs but it’s an important statement. Twenty five years after the Achille Lauro hijacking, terrorism is, if anything, more widespread and more savage than ever before. Twin Towers, the school in Beslan, the cinema in Moscow, and Utøya. Is there something to be learned from The Death of Klinghoffer? Many thanks to the ENO for giving us a chance to hear for ourselves.