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Klinghoffer is Dead

Death of Klinghoffer (DVD)

Death of Klinghoffer (CD)
As part of Film Fest DC in Washington, I got to see Penny Woolcock's The Death of Klinghoffer, her film version of John Adams's 1991 opera of the same name about the 1984 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. On the Film Festival's Web site, Eddie Crockrell is quoted as saying that director "Penny Woolcock's decision to film the opera in the style of a political thriller on authentic Middle Eastern locations renders this one-of-a-kind film a remarkable and daring synthesis of heart-pounding docudrama filmmaking and risk-taking contemporary opera." The film was first shown in 2002 on Britain's Channel 4 but did not come to the U.S. until now.

This version, as good an adaptation of an opera for film as I have ever seen one, will not contribute much to either making The Death of Klinghoffer more popular or less controversial. In its combination of film, opera, its musical atmosphere, and its genre-bending character, the film is hugely interesting. No single element, however, seems to contain enough merit on its own to truly make this venture succeed.

In October 1984, four heavily armed Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, which was carrying more than 400 passengers and crew, off the coast of Egypt. The hijackers demanded that Israel free 50 fellow Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) members imprisoned in Israel. The terrorists killed a disabled American tourist, 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, and threw his body overboard with his wheelchair. After a two-day drama, the hijackers surrendered in exchange for a pledge of safe passage. But when an Egyptian jet tried to fly the hijackers to freedom, U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercepted it and forced it to land in Sicily. The terrorists were then taken into custody by Italian authorities.

The opera does not delve into much of the before and after, whereas the film around it spans a narrative including flashbacks to the concentration camps in Germany and the founding of Israel. Attempts at being balanced seem a little heavy-handed in the earlier half of the film, where a pro-Palestinian attitude was evident. Some of the stories, depicted during the Greek chorus's work and solely in pictures, are made up, but they add depth to the characters and interest to the film. Reality is cast aside a little towards the end, especially with shots to 2002 that shows the whereabouts of three of the four terrorists.

The terrorists were, in real life, Majed Youssef al Molqi (24 years old at the time), Ahmad Marrouf al Assadi (23), Bassam al-Asker, and Ibrahim Abdetalif (21). The alleged mastermind was Abu Abbas (a.k.a. Muhammad Zaidan or Muhammad Abbas, then 37), founder of the PLF. "Molqi" (played and sung very well by tenor Tom Randle) was sentenced to 30 years, left the Rebibbia prison in Rome on February 16, 1996, on a twelve-day furlough, and fled to Spain, where he was recaptured and extradited back to Italy. Ahmad Marrouf al-Assadi—perhaps "Rambo" in the film and opera—disappeared in 1991 while on parole, serving a seven-year sentence. "Omar" (played by Emil Marwa, sung by mezzo soprano Susan Bickley) could be Ahmed Marrouf al Assadi, who renounced terrorism and turned state's evidence, or Bassam al-Asker, who disappeared after having been granted conditional parole in 1991. Whatever happened to—or whoever was—Ibrahim Abdetalif, I am not sure. The other film/opera terrorist is "Mamoud," played and sung by Kamel Boutros (image at left). Real-life Mahmud Issa Abbas (Abu Abbas's cousin), convicted for smuggling weapons to the ship, and Youssuf Saad, convicted for importing money to finance the hijacking, were convicted to six years prison each, but were released early "for Christmas." Unfortunately, it seems almost impossible to gather—except "Molqi," whose identity and story are easy to track—who the particular personae in the film/opera resemble in real life, because few sources actually agree on the names of three, much less all four hijackers involved.

Abu Abbas, of course, the hijacking's mastermind, was finally captured in Baghdad in 2003 and died there, in U.S. custody, on March 26, 2004. His story, as well as the entire affair's aftermath, is really a lot more interesting than the story of the hijacking itself. After U.S. outrage over the shooting of Leon Klinghoffer, President Reagan got involved. At first, ignoring U.S. protests, the Egyptian government rushed Abul Abbas and the Achille Lauro hijackers into an EgyptAir 737 charter plane bound for Tunis. Aboard Air Force One, Reagan authorized the carrier USS Saratoga, patrolling the Adriatic Sea, to put seven F-14 Tomcats into the air with orders to divert the Egyptian aircraft to a NATO base at Sigonella, Sicily. The appearance of the Tomcats unnerved the EgyptAir pilot, who compliantly altered course for Sicily.

Initially, the Italians were rather unwilling to cooperate and scrambled their warplanes to prevent a landing at Sigonella. Only after Reagan called then Prime Minister Craxi, did the government allow the plane to land. On the ground, Italian Carabinieri surrounded the plane, only to find themselves surrounded by U.S. soldiers who had orders to arrest the hijackers and Abu Abbas. The U.S. soldiers in turn found themselves surrounded by Italian soldiers. Arafat had threatened "uncontrollable" actions if the Italians were to turn over Abbas, and another call of Reagan’s did not yield further results. Early in the morning, when the Italians called in armored vehicles to support them against the Americans, the American commander withdrew his men. In the aftermath, the 737 pilot got decorated by Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, who also demanded an apology from Reagan, who in turn vowed never to give one. There were demonstrations in Cairo, Craxi's coalition government fell apart over the affair, and the U.N. General Assembly shelved a proposal to invite Yasser Arafat to speak at an event celebrating the UN's fortieth anniversary.

This has admittedly little to do with the film or the music... where best to start then? The libretto is often awkward and stilted, usually in the chorus parts. The action proceeds slowly but is much helped by Mme. Woodcock's flashbacks and picturesque storytelling. The singers, recorded live during the filming, are splendid, and their acting is superb, especially given the extreme demands. The captain, played and sung by Christopher Maltman, particularly impresses. Yvonne Howard's Marilyn Klinghoffer (a more mature woman than the 36-year-old "original" may have been in real life?), wife of the 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, played and sung by Sanford Sylvan (image at left), a pleasant mezzo, emerged as the hero of the opera. Her moral stature, dignity, and strength give the film its high points and lasting flavor.

But, as Arved Ashby from Gramophone Magazine asks, "[s]uch questions aside, is the opera any good?" He answers almost as I would: "The [film] does nothing to assure me of its musical worth. Even after repeated hearings, no one bar sticks in the memory. The harmonic vocabulary is the most pedestrian of just about any new music heard in the past 20 years." My words of choice would have been "turgid" and "wholly unsatisfying." There are, of course, critics who think of Klinghoffer as one of the best and/or most important operas of the 20th century. For this assessment, however, I cannot find a justification given the shortcomings of Klinghoffer and the multitude of wonderful 20th-century operas. Nixon in China, for that matter, Adams's opera before Klinghoffer is quite a bit better. Adams's oratorio/opera El Niño is most outstanding. And then there is always Richard Strauss, Leoš Janáček, Giacomo Puccini, Benjamin Britten, Philip Glass, et al.

Some of the dramatic scenes work well, thanks to the singers/actors. They are moving and involving, but they are lumped together with forgettable or flat passages, and the occasional minimalist offerings disturb more with their self-conscious appearance than they create a mindset like they do in Glass's work. Arved Ashby's closing paragraph sums it up nicely: "The prosaic extinguishing of Klinghoffer" was how critic Kyle Gann retitled the opera. Woolcock has turned it into a fairly gripping visual drama, and in a sense her success shows up the musical deficiencies: encountered as an opera rather than a film, Klinghoffer's interest goes no further than its topicality.

A treat only for the really interested, while general lovers of opera could probably better invest their time somewhere else.

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