Death of Klinghoffer at ENO

Helen Wallace catches the London premiere of John Adams's controversial opera 

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It’s taken 21 years for John Adams’s opera-oratorio The Death of Klinghoffer to reach the London stage. The fact that this meditation on conflict can still be seen as uniquely controversial is a measure of the malign power of the West’s Middle-East taboo. It’s not the first art work to show both sides of a conflict (let’s start with Homer's Iliad, shall we?) yet at its 1991 La Monnaie premiere there was genuine fear of a terrorist attack on the theatre. On Saturday there was just one man with a placard standing outside the London Coliseum requesting that we respect the memory of his Jewish parents, who had died in the war. A woman beside him patiently repeated: ‘He hasn’t even seen the opera!’

In fact, the problems of the opera are nothing to do with its subject matter and everything to do with its dramatic structure. The first Act consists of a series of reflections on the history and the aftermath of the Palestinian hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985. Palestinian and Jewish choruses recall their suffering in long, aching cantilenas over shimmering, suspended harmonies, while the ship’s captain (well sung by Christopher Magiera) and passengers also take a meandering trip down memory lane. This Act has a dream-like quality, with its roots in a Baroque Passion, the Captain as a curiously neutral Evangelist, and Klinghoffer the sacrifical victim. The choruses can be ravishing, but here were ragged and languid under the calm but pedestrian baton of Baldur Brönimann.

In the Second Act, we almost have a narrative thread, and the principal singers came into their own here. Baritone Alan Opie (as Klinghoffer) and mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens (his wife), along with baritone Richard Burkhard as the terrorist Mamoud and mezzo-soprano Clare Presland as a Palestinian woman put in performances of penetrating emotional conviction, while the orchestra erupted into those blazingly dissonant climaxes with brilliance.

Director Tom Morris’s elegant solution to the staging was to keep us in the desert from start to finish. How better to tell a story about land-grab and water rights than to dispense with the boat, and keep us on arid earth pitching forward into a broiling sea? Surging waves were projected on to concrete barriers that became the walls imprisoning the Palestinians. Achieved through Tom Pye’s designs and Finn Ross's video projections, this would have sufficed; sadly, texts were added, beating us over the head with superfluous facts about who did what when, and even pointing out that the English dancing girl (an inspired comic performance by Kate Miller-Heidke) was not a real-life character. Given that Alice Goodman’s poetic and often gnomic libretto is as far from docu-drama as it is possible to get, these CNN rolling newslines were a blot. In fact, Goodman has some truly strange offerings: ‘their wives’ rank extremities’, ‘and ‘As if an antlion has caused them to give way’ were two that had me reaching for the Biblical concordance.

I’m not sure if this is an opera, but it’s an utterance of mystery and ambiguity, whose seriousness is beyond doubt. John Adams himself rightly drew the biggest cheer.

The Death of Klinghoffer runs at ENO until 9 March

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

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