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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at ENO/Coliseum


  Alan Opie and Jesse Kovarsky/ Ph: Richard Hubert Smith

It takes a brave opera house to mount a full-scale production of a rarely heard contemporary opera – especially when the work in question is as politically controversial as John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer.

First premiered in Brussels in 1991 and staged 14 years later by Scottish Opera, it finally makes its London debut in an impressive new production directed by Tom Morris, the man at the helm of War Horse and the in-your-face Jerry Springer: The Opera, both gigantic hits for the National Theatre, which originally presented them.

Clearly, taking risks has never deterred Morris, for the subject of Klinghoffer is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general and, in particular, the hijacking in 1985 of the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro by a group of Palestinian terrorists in the hope that their actions would result in the release of 50 terrorists being held in Israeli prisons. The end result was the murder of an elderly, handicapped American Jew called Leon Klinghoffer, who was randomly shot, then, while still in his wheelchair, flung overboard.

If tragedy is the essence of most serious opera, The Death of Klinghoffer ticks several boxes. Not only do we witness the personal tragedy of Klinghoffer himself and the effect his murder has on his wife, who learns of her husband's death only after it is a fait accompli, but the ongoing tragedy of the irreconcilable rift that festers between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Composer Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman refuse to take sides, and describe with nonjudgmental compassion and objectivity the situation as it existed in 1985 and continues to exist to the present. 

As a piece of narrative drama, though, it presents serious problems. The first act, which contains some glorious choral writing, plays more like an oratorio than a fully-fledged opera and relies, documentary-like, on factual information being projected onto various parts of the set. The second act develops more dramatic momentum as the terrorists threaten to murder several hostages unless the Syrian government allows them to dock. In the event, only one passenger, the eponymous Klinghoffer, lost his life.

Though hampered by a libretto that is short on characterization and far too long on tedious, often impenetrable philosophizing, director Morris' superb visual flair, abetted by Tom Pye's sets, Jean Kalman's atmospheric lighting, Finn Ross' striking video designs and expressive choreography by Arthur Pita, draws every possible ounce of drama from a basically static text.

Though you will listen in vain for instantly accessible tunes or melodies, Adams, whose other operas include Nixon in China and Mr. Atomic, fills the piece with sonorous, richly layered textures, bold orchestrations, choral writing redolent of Bach, and deeply emotive solo arias. 

The work is not without its longueurs, but with the ENO orchestra and chorus under the baton of Baldur Bronimann in superlative form – and with Christopher Magiera as the Captain, Edwin Vega, Richard Burkhard, Sidney OutlawJesse Kovarsky as the terrorists, Alan Opie as Klinghoffer and Michaela Martens as his wife Marilyn all in excellent voice – this difficult, highly emotional, politically sensitive work commands attention. Bravo to ENO for taking it on.


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