A space for dreams and fears

John Adams

Antonín Dvorák
Covent Garden

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 23 March

It is well known that Wagner wrote the Ring backwards, first drafting the poem for an opera entitled "Siegfrieds Tod". Only later did he realize that if the death of the Nordic mythological hero were to have the full dramatic, moral and political significance he intended, a great deal of explanation would be necessary, resulting in one prequel after another. When the American opera director Peter Sellars, fresh from his triumph with Nixon in China, which he planned and staged with the composer-librettist dream team of John Adams and Alice Goodman, pitched to them a new idea for an opera, he called it "Klinghoffers Tod". The resonance will have been inescapable, especially given that neither the setting nor any of the characters was German.

Leon Klinghoffer, a retired Jewish-American businessman who, after two strokes, was confined to a wheelchair, was the sole casualty of what came to be known as the Achille Lauro incident. The Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise liner, was commandeered, on October 7, 1985, by Palestinian terrorists, led by Abu Abbas, a PLF leader and one of Yasser Arafat's right-hand men. Abbas disembarked before the remaining men took control of the vessel and 400 or so of its passengers, sailing into open water and using ship-to-shore radio to attempt to negotiate a release of fifty PLF prisoners. They succeeded only in negotiating their own release into Palestinian custody, thanks to the intervention of Arafat, before word got out either on board or in the wider world that one of the passengers had been shot in the head and chest and then thrown overboard. The manner of his death would have awoken fresh memories of the murder of US Navy diver Robert Stethem, whose body had been rolled on to the tarmac of Beirut airport from the hijacked TWA Flight 847 some months before.

Why did Klinghoffer die? Because he spoke out against the hijackers, or because it was difficult to move him around the ship with the other passengers? Both are possibilities, but it was clear to the terrorists early on in the operation that their interests would be best served by keeping the passengers and crew alive. The act itself therefore remains shrouded in mystery, albeit a mystery which prevents memory of the event fading into the collage of numerous similar kidnappings and acts of terrorism and murder of the time, and makes it emblematic of the unresolved fears and loathings that keep the world glued to Middle Eastern politics no less now than in 1985.

While Wagner's idea for "Siegfrieds Tod" was predicated on the need to show why the opera's hero had to die, the idea central to what became The Death of Klinghoffer, premiered in Brussels in 1991, was predicated on the idea of preserving the event's mystery, its portentous meaninglessness.
When Adams read Goodman's full libretto, he recalls being struck by its "strange, almost biblical" quality. This impression was carried through the writing of the opera which, even if it will never escape the label of "docu-opera", rejoices in the techniques of sacred oratorio and the interspersing of narrated and direct action with more reflective episodes, usually given to the chorus.

We do not encounter Klinghoffer until the second act, and his death - though its conditions are prepared by the passing of a gun to Omar, the youngest of the terrorists - takes place outside the framework of directly represented or narrated action. In fact, it happens twice. The first time, accompanied by disturbing, descending swirls in the orchestra, there is no singing (Omar is a dancing role), and the episode is bracketed by an affecting but bland soliloquy by Marilyn Klinghoffer, who knows nothing of the event. The second time, Klinghoffer's body is doubled by another dancer while the singer stands aside in the socalled "Aria of the Falling Body", to some of the tenderest and most beautifully shaped music Adams has yet written.
For the work's London stage premiere, the director Tom Morris has chosen to represent the two deaths in mirror image, with Klinghoffer peacefully gazing over the deck railing out to sea, apparently unaware of the young Palestinian hesitating behind him. The first time he faces the audience; the second time the dancers enact the scene from the rear of the stage, with Klinghoffer's body and chair cast overboard and into the waves, to Arthur Pita's beautifully fluid slow-motion choreography, while the singing role is taken, magnificently, by Alan Opie, from just off centrestage. The dual representation of the act's mindless brutality also has an otherworldly beauty, and its mysterious negative energy radiates outward, disrupting any sense of closure around the drama or the events it relates. Klinghoffer's death, though a real enough event and still of course a painful memory to his surviving family and friends, merges with the religious rituals that bear testament to humanity's deep-rooted need to witness the shedding of its own blood.

Morris's production, to designs by Tom Pye, is every bit as good as it needs to be for mounting Adams's problematic but ultimately impressive second opera. The fluidity of the choral settings offsets their dramatic stasis without disturbing the quasi-liturgical atmosphere. The documentary-style projections interpolate a modern a sense of pacing without upsetting the powerful gravitational lurches, in both libretto and score, between folk-religious mysticism and bland vernacular.

The conducting of Baldur Brönnimann is equally assured, negotiating the challenging terrain of Adams's subtly shaded orchestral score while keeping the soloists and chorus absolutely in line across the massive and, at times, extremely busy stage. The vocal performances are mostly excellent too, Michaela Martens capturing perfectly the blank, searing tragedy of Marilyn Klinghoffer's final aria and Richard Burkhard conveying the poetic beauty of Mamoud's vision of his people's suffering and his desire for vengeance, not mere settlement. The captain is also well portrayed by Christopher Magiera, a singular achievement for both the tenor and Morris because, as well as being the longest role, it is also the hardest to pull off. The dramatic framework is underpinned by his ability to lie, admittedly for the sake of his passengers, and in his failure - confessed uneasily to Mrs Klinghoffer - adequately to discharge his duties of hospitality, a failure which resonates all the more loudly in the quasi-biblical setting.

The opera has been staged several times since its Brussels premiere, though only twice fully in the US, where it remains controversial. Even in London, where it has only been heard in a concert performance at the Barbican in 2002, there were rumours and promises of disruption by a pro-Israeli faction, but besides a lone and rather dutiful-looking protester, these never materialized. The opera's most controversial moment was perhaps a planned performance of some of the choruses in September 2011 which was cancelled, partly because a relation of one of the chorus members had been killed in the World Trade Center. Adams discovered this detail only after he had noisily objected to the cancellation, and the controversy reached its peak with the publication of an extended essay in the New York Times by Richard Taruskin, arguing that the work should be boycotted (or subject to "self-control") because of the anti-Semitism of the "beautiful" music given to the terrorists and also to Klinghoffer, but only after his death - a detail which, Taruskin argued, embodied a message to the effect that "the only good Jew is a dead Jew". Goodman's response, in an interview with Rupert Christiansen in Opera magazine, didn't help matters ("a case, I believe, of pathological Jewish self-hatred on Taruskin's part"), but the Taruskin essay remains one of the great musicologist's more remarkable outbursts. If the theatre does not exist as a space in which man- kind can contemplate its dreams and fears, its unbound hopes and unhealed wounds, then I don't know what it is for. Censoring the manner and direction in which it may appeal to our sympathies is not an answer.

Opera houses, of course, survive to a certain extent on scandal, especially in Europe where controversy is often mistaken for confirmation that subsidies have been well spent. So when a sizeable and vocal minority in the audience at Covent Garden greeted the director and designers of the Royal Opera's new production of Rusalka with ferocious booing, many took this as evidence of the production's success. The real controversy here, of course, is that the Royal Opera have somehow neglected to stage this beautiful opera until now.
The production in question, conceived by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito to designs by Barbara Ehnes, was first seen in Salzburg in 2008. The directors' decision to set Dvorák and Jaroslav Kvapil's captivating fairy tale in a brothel - apparently one specializing in catering to those with liturgical and Piscean fetishes - upset audiences there, just as it upset them in London. Many objected to Rusalka's famous address to the moon in Act One being directed toward a fluffy toy cat, but those in search of verisimilitude might want to check their own memories for the last time they saw a mermaid addressing an orbiting rock.

The basic idea, though, is a strong one. The disenchanted water-spirit's desire for the capacity for human love, and her subsequent disappointment, transpose naturally to the longing of a prostitute for the freedom to love as others do. As all productions of any opera should, it asks questions of its audience and connects the drama, and thus the music, with actions, motivations and emotions to which we can relate. The problems have more to do with the confusion that ensues from attempting to preserve too many of the supernatural trappings of the fairy tale. The brothel location only really becomes clear in the third act, as does the fact that her ownership of the institution is the secret of the witch Jezibah's power. The staging, despite some clever details, is garish and ugly, but insufficiently so for these qualities to become beautiful through their excess. The vocal performances, on the other hand, are mostly good, especially Camilla Nylund's touching Rusalka, Bryan Hymel's bright, passionate Prince and Alan Held's powerful and darktoned Vodnik. In the pit, things are even better, the orchestra clearly enjoying their liberty to face away from the stage. Indeed, such is the inspirational dynamism, edge-of-theseat excitement and sheer beauty of Yannick Nézet-Séguin's musical direction that the lacklustre ironies of the set stand little chance of exerting any negative force on the drama.

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