Saturday 25 February 2012

ENO's The Death of Klinghoffer, or, A Superb Performance of a Masterpiece

In reviewing this evening there is a first principle that has to be established. It is incredible (and says much about our capacity to evade the unpalatable) that it has not been established long before this. That principle is that John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer is a twentieth century masterpiece of the genre and it should be being staged by every major company.

It was greatly to the credit of Scottish Opera that they staged the UK premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005 (and it was nice to see that acknowledged in tonight's programme). It is equally to the credit of English National Opera that they have brought this stunning work to the London stage.

More to the point, it is cause for considerable rejoicing that at long last John Berry's various strategies have really paid off. This is a contemporary opera which urgently deserved a staging, and Tom Morris on his ENO debut proves to have an excellent grasp of what is needed to make a compelling operatic production. There isn't a weak link in the ensemble, and the ENO Chorus and Orchestra under Baldur Bronnimann play with precision, drama and passion. The whole experience took me back to company days of yore – in fact I think this is quite possibly the most complete work they have done since John Berry became artistic director.

Adams's score proves even more powerful on a second live hearing. Both my brother and I were much struck by it at the Edinburgh performance, but this evening I heard all sorts of things which I had completely forgotten. Twice I had tears in my eyes, as Klinghoffer tries to make his wife smile, and as she later rails at his death. It's fascinating to realise how cleverly Adams uses the operatic forms – the mixing of choruses, orchestral interludes, solo arias and ensemble sections is masterfully done. But he is also supported by what is, in the main Alice Goodman's very powerful and telling libretto. Of course this is the weapon which has allowed detractors to frighten houses into not staging the work. To give terrorists a voice is it seems deplorable to some. It is true that there are unpleasant moments in the text (the various diatribes some of the terrorists utter against the Jews in the second act are perhaps the most troubling). But what is so striking about this is that, leaving aside the fact that unpleasant things don't go away if we put our fingers in our ears, here these remarks, at least from my point of view, served to turn my sympathies away from the terrorists. Similarly, the moment in Act One when the Captain, having heard Mamoud's description of the exile history of his family, urges him that if he told his story like that to the world peace must come, and is brutally dismissed by the terrorist. To a considerable degree the terrorists are given a voice and condemn themselves.

To put across this challenging piece ENO has assembled a very strong cast. Christopher Magiera (The Captain), Alan Opie (Klinghoffer) and Michaela Martens (Marilyn Klinghoffer) give superb performances. The four terrorists are well differentiated and sung by Edwin Vega, Richard Burkhard, Sidney Outlaw and Jesse Kovarsky. Also especially worthy of mention is Kate Miller-Heidke as the British dancing-girl – a little vignette that I had completely forgotten. All of them give the text real, powerful point.

The production is much more active than I remember Anthony Neilson's being in Edinburgh but the key point about it is that it is still when it needs to be still. Tom Morris understands the value of allowing singers sometimes just to stand and deliver the music to one another and there are some overpowering stage pictures – perhaps most notably as Marilyn Klinghoffer talks to the Captain about her husband while in the background we watch the terrorists getting ready to wheel him away. Just occasionally I thought there was a little too much choreography but I can see why Morris and choreographer Arthur Pita have gone with the approach they did and in general it yields major rewards.

Others have commented (I'm not sure if I picked this up from members of the production team or from other critics) about the way that we often talk about trying to make opera relevant and here is an opera that really is powerfully engaged with contemporary issues. Unlike some others I felt this did come over in the Scottish Opera production but it comes across equally powerfully in this one. We may not like this story, people in it may say things that appall us, but these are things we need in my view to face. Moreover, to me this is also ultimately an opera about the small tragedies perhaps most acutely caught in Klinghoffer's movingly commonplace final line before his murder - “I should have worn a hat.” People should stop being afraid of staging this work and let it speak for itself, it deserves to be able to do that. Considerable congratulations are due to English National Opera for giving it an important opportunity to do so. Put aside any preconceptions you have and go and see it.

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