Composer: John Adams
Conductor: David Robertson
Producer/Director: Tom Morris
The Captain: Paulo Szot
Marilyn Klinghoffer: Michaela Martens
Leon Klinghoffer: Alan Opie
Mamoud: Aubrey Allicock
Molqi: Sean Panikkar
Rambo: Ryan Speedo Green
They say there is no such thing as bad publicity, and the robust ticket sales of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met following weeks of vituperative accusations of anti-semitism and pro-terrorism would certainly support this theory. But the artists, Met personnel and public who had to put up with all kinds of harassment, from mere annoying to plain vicious, may think that the means did not justify the end, and who could blame them? Moreover, in this particular case, the irony is that there was no controversy to be found to begin with, which the protesters could have easily realized if they had bothered checking out the opera instead of stridently stating groundless claims and making fools of themselves. Oops.
Unlike the vast majority of the protesters, I was actually familiar with Klinghoffer because I had seen - and very much liked - the BBC film version of it several years ago. So last summer, my only motivation to buy a ticket was to attend a live production of it, not thinking for a minute that it was about to become the focus of so much pointless ranting and raving. And then all hell broke loose.
Fortunately Peter Geld held strong when it came to the live production, unfortunately he caved in when it came to the broadcasts, depriving the rest of the world from a chance to get to know a major work and make up their own mind about it like, you know, grown-ups are supposed to do. So it was with a special thought for my frustrated opera-loving friends and family that I walked down Broadway yesterday afternoon to attend the Saturday matinee we should have all shared.
Based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestine Liberation Front, during which wheelchair-bound Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer was murdered, his body and wheelchair thrown overboard, The Death of Klinghoffer has been regularly performed in major cities around the world for the past 23 years. Even when it generated controversy, those occurrences can hardly be compared to all the noise we had to endure here, which incidentally does not speak exactly well of New York City as the potential cultural capital of the world.
After a rowdy, headline-making opening night a few weeks ago, things have been back to normal outside the Met, but once inside yesterday, a vague feeling of paranoia was still in the air as apologetic extra personnel asked me to throw away my water bottle "just for this show" as I was passing security. (But not to worry, I quickly realized that I could still buy an overpriced water bottle at one of the Met's bars and hurl it toward the stage if that had been my intention anyway.)
Although the title is about Leon Klinghoffer, the lead part was the nameless captain, who was soberly and efficiently interpreted by baritone Paulo Szot, whose strong and flexible voice gave the character a dignified presence, the one of a man ready to reason the unreasonable and sacrifice himself for the crew and passengers he was responsible for.
Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens was viscerally touching as Marilyn Klinghoffer, a devoted wife dying of cancer but determined to spend quality time with her husband. Her singing was crystal clear, richly colorful and deeply affecting, making her an instant crowd favorite.
As Leon Klinghoffer, baritone Alan Opie had only two arias, but they were spell-binding ones, and he easily commanded the stage with his particularly expressive voice as he first angrily confronted the hijackers and later ethereally drifted away.
The bad guys, who had generated so much of the heat because they were literally given a voice, grabbed the opportunity and made a riveting use of theirs. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was a complex Mamoud, who had survived the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where he saw his mother and brother murdered, and consequently turned into a cold-hearted, non-compromising terrorist. The hard line he had adopted, however, did not keep him from having mundane tastes, such as fondly remembering the pop music from some local radio stations and musing about birds and freedom.
Tenor Sean Panikkar was an out-of-control Molqi, whose virulent singing made him even more of an unpredictable threat. Bass baritone Ryan Speedo Green was quick-tempered, big-mouthed Rambo, the one who suddenly launched into an anti-Jewish rant bursting with bigoted stereotypes and later came up with the immature, sadistic hand grenade scare.
Although the soloists were all very fine indeed, the real star of the opera had to be the Met chorus, which handled the massive challenge of providing richly textured, organic interludes with unshakable force and stunning subtlety. The opening Chorus of Exiled Palestinians followed by the Chorus of Exiled Jews were dramatically instrumental, musically mesmerizing and set the highly expressive tone of the choral parts right away. However, to my ears at least, their tour de force of the afternoon was the Night Chorus, which exploded with ferocious rage before a West Bank wall covered with screamingly colorful street art as huge green flags were being assertively waved.
But all the outstanding singing talent in the house could not hide the fact the text they were given did not say much or said too much, depending on how you looked at it. In fact, the major flaw of the opera is probably an overly dense libretto that for the most part overflows with fancy words, biblical references, obscure metaphors, and rarely seems to connect with the reality of the situation. This is all the more problematic as the story is neither linear nor always well-balanced, and all this over-ambitious pseudo-poetry fails to clarify or elevate the unfolding drama. Even the most emotionally gripping scene of the opera, when the captain told Marilyn Klinghoffer that her husband had been murdered, eventually got spoiled when another weird metaphor sneaked into her otherwise simple, devastatingly effective text.
On the other hand, the production's use of projected photos and text often helped situate the action and fill some of the most static scenes with valuable insights. Backgrounds representing the thankless nature of the arid land or the sheer impassibility of the Mediterranean sea and sun worked well, as did the partial reconstitution of the ship, on which brilliant minimalist tableaux were created at times. But I could have done without the jumpy choreography, or having a veiled Palestinian mezzo-soprano sing the part of Omar, a male terrorist who was embodied by a jerky dancer. In those cases, less would have definitely been more.
The ultimate unifier of all the parts was the hypnotic composition written by John Adams. Whether it was dealing with complex chorus numbers expressing universal ideas, introspective arias conveying psychological struggle, or the inherent tension of life on a hijacked ship, the music never failed to persuasively draw the attentive audience in and keep them on a permanent edge. The score also benefitted from a beautifully nuanced and masterfully executed performance by the always excellent Met orchestra, who gave it their all under the assured and unwavering baton of David Robertson.
The clapping started even before the lights had completely faded, maybe out of a need to come back to a comforting reality quicker, and only grew exponentially to reach a thunderous ovation when John Adams appeared on the stage of the packed opera house. And rightly so. After a rather humdrum Aida a couple of weeks ago, I was only too happy to have experienced a truly memorable performance of a fundamentally messy, but also profoundly human, musically enthralling, unapologetically thought-provoking, and regrettably more relevant than ever, opera because, at the end of the day, that is what genuine artistic endeavors are all about.