John Adams – The Death of Klinghoffer (18th January)

The Death of Klinghoffer [UK premiere]

Captain – Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Leon Klinghoffer – Sanford Sylvan (baritone)
Marilyn Klinghoffer – Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
First Officer – Dean Robinson (bass)
Mamoud – William Dazeley (baritone)
Rambo – Leigh Melrose (baritone)
Molqi – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor)
Omar – Andrew Watts (counter-tenor)
Swiss Grandmother – Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano)
Austrian Woman – Nuala Willis (contralto)
British Dancing Girl – Kirsten Blase, soprano

Director – Paul Curran
Sound Design – Sound Intermedia

BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 January, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s weekend of John Adams’s music got off to the high-profile start that a retrospective of this nature needed: the first complete UK performance of his second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer.

Completed in 1990, Klinghoffer was dogged by controversy from the outset. But then, an opera that deals with the murder of an American Jew at the hands of Palestinian terrorists was bound to incite strong feelings, not least because the context of Middle Eastern conflict is always present – whether through the Gulf War in 1991 or the New York and Washington atrocities ten years on. Moreover, to try to deal even-handedly with an enmity going back millennia is no easy matter – yet, in as much as librettist Alice Goodman has articulated the emotions of all those caught up in the hijacking of the cruise-liner Achille Lauro, the question of false compromise seldom arises.

Leon Klinghoffer himself, wheelchair-bound innocent bystander, only appears in Act Two, where his successive lambasting of the terrorists and comforting of his wife add up to a rounded portrayal of an ’everyman’ figure – human in his reactions and sensibilities. Sanford Sylvan recreated the part he sang at the premiere with warmth and insight, capturing a sense of timeless ebbing away in the ’Aria of the Fallen Body’. As conveyed by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Marilyn Klinghoffer is no less pivotal at the denouement. Her aria of concern for her husband becomes all the more poignant for not knowing his true fate, while her intensity of response when told of his death ends the opera at a level of heightened emotion – giving the wider political context a more acute, personal focus.

The role of the Captain is the most complex, operating both as a character in the here-and-now and as a narrator commenting from outside the immediate timeframe. Again, a tangible humanity comes through in his thinking: in Act One – his sense of responsibility for the ship and its occupants, and his attempted reasoning with the hijackers; in Act Two, his willingness to give his own life rather than sacrifice those of the passengers, and his tacit conspiring with the terrorists, in the knowledge of Klinghoffer’s death, so that the hijacking can be defused. Musically this is the most continuous, ’minimalist’, part in the opera, and sensitively sung by Christopher Maltman.

The terrorists are differentiated according to voice-type and demeanour, with the role of Mamoud – capably realised by William Dazeley – approaching a balance of the humane and the fanatical not shared by his compatriots. Articulating the terrorists’ emotions and convictions though she may have done, Goodman is mindful not to underplay this fanaticism; witness Mamoud’s shudder, during his long dialogue with the Captain in Act One, at the thought of compromise between Arabs and Israelis.

The remaining characters contribute soliloquies that enrich the musical continuity to varying degrees. Yvonne Howard touchingly portrayed the Swiss Grandmother, but the anti-Semitic certainties of the Austrian Woman – as conveyed by Nuala Willis – are set to half-hearted Sprechstimme writing. The whims and fancies of the British Dancing Girl, given appropriately cutesy treatment from Kirsten Blase, would have had more impact had not the music sounded like sampled Jerome Moross, its flaccid pop-style anticipating the slack fusion of Adams’s theatre piece, I was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky.

The role of the chorus, though, is as impressive as it is extensive. Adams and Goodman have often cited the model of Bach’s Passions in the writing of Klinghoffer, and the frequent choral numbers punctuate the action in a specific fashion – giving an impersonal, yet mortal quality to the opera as they offset the narrative dimension. The Prologue pointedly contrasts choruses for the exiled Palestinians and Jews, with the latter returning to underscore the anger of Marilyn Klinghoffer’s closing sentiments to powerful effect. This amalgamation of Passion and Opera is Adams’s most significant revitalising of the operatic genre so far.

The orchestration is outwardly familiar from Adams’s earlier Nixon in China, with woodwind providing the ongoing melodic interest, brass and sampling-keyboards the dramatic intensification, over string writing of an almost neutral ambience. Klinghoffer features some of the composer’s most densely chromatic music, and if this often sounds merely laminated onto the prevailing texture, this is less a technical failing than the wider problem of varying pacing and intensity, in an overtly minimalist idiom, that Adams is still working towards overcoming.

This UK premiere was vividly co-ordinated by Leonard Slatkin, clearly on a mission, the BBCSO responding with playing of textural and dynamic accuracy. Sound Intermedia ensured a believable balance between voices and orchestra, skilfully mixed into a musical continuum, with just occasional distortion in some of the more demonstrative vocal deliveries. Paul Curran’s unobtrusive but thoughtful platform direction and lighting gave the audience a necessary sense of distance on what was being experienced. Indeed, warm but restrained applause suggested that the opera had at least struck a resonance in those present.

The Death of Klinghoffer, conducted by Kent Nagano, is recorded on NONESUCH 7559-79281-2 (2CDs)

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