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Summer Opera: Death of Klinghoffer

Other Articles:

Raymond Monelle, The Death Of Klinghoffer, Festival Theatre (The Independent, August 25)

Sarah Jones, Wrong kind of electric (The Scotsman, August 28)

Anna Picard, The Death of Klinghoffer, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (The Independent, August 28)

Sam Ser, 'Klinghoffer' opera hits sour note with family (Jerusalem Post, August 30)

Senay Boztas, Dejected chorus get P45s in post before final opera (Glasgow Sunday Herald, August 28)
Summer must really be over, because we have reached the end of my schedule of Opera in the Summer 2005. From August 23 to 29, Anthony Neilson directed the British premiere of John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer, performed by Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh International Festival. As you can imagine with this very controversial opera (which I find so beautiful), opinions were divided in the press reviews. Anthony Holden's review (Troubled waters, August 28) for The Observer was generally positive and welcoming of a live performance of the work. He did have some reservations:
In many respects, the piece is less opera than oratorio, taking Bach as an obvious exemplar in its extended meditation on man's inhumanity to man. The hijackers, for all their righteous indignation, are often less than articulate in their self-justification. All the central characters are given extended passages of eloquent introspection, even-handedly exploring how humankind has managed to sink so low. So it is a fundamental mistake of the director, Anthony Neilson, to attempt to give the plot a literal narrative line, starting with the seagulls whose cries greet your entry to the theatre (even to the men's room). This is a much subtler piece than that, at times rendered absurdly crude by Neilson's hamfistedness, as in the Klinghoffer home movies that accompany his lyrical, posthumous 'Aria of the Falling Body', and sporadic, seriously misjudged attempts at comic relief.
The director made several cuts, apparently similar to those made in the British film a couple years ago (see Jens's review). Kenneth Walton's review (The Death of Klinghoffer, August 25) for The Scotsman is kinder to the direction:
The set is simple, one massive slice of a ship's deck, but Neilson brings imagination and flexibility to a plot - the 1985 hijacking of the ferry Achille Lauro - which is intrinsically restrictive. The performing arena spills over into the audience, where planted terrorists initiate their actions with startling gunshots and strobes. The Austrian Woman (Susan Gorton), who hides throughout the ordeal in her cabin, plays out her demented cameo - a wailing Sprechstimme - from a side box. Nothing Neilson does tarnishes the music, which possesses some of Adams's most voluptuous touches: delicious Bergian sweeps, chattering minimalist rock, and sublime filmic sequences.
Most reviewers agreed that Edward Gardner's conducting was superb, for example, Rupert Christiansen in his review (Edinburgh reports: a ship going nowhere, August 25) for The Telegraph (although he was less enthusiastic about other aspects):
There's nothing mechanical or minimalistic about Gardner's approach: he squeezes every drop of emotion out of Adams's sequences and arpeggios, encouraging the singers to phrase the often discursive vocal lines and the instrumentalists to relish the Ravelian sonorities and harmonic shimmering. I only regret the cuts he has sanctioned to the choruses in Act 2. Klinghoffer may be an unwieldy piece, with longueurs and a jerky pace, but eliminating some of its most beautiful music simply makes it more lopsided. [...] The staging is a mess. Nobody could pretend that Klinghoffer - half-opera, half-oratorio, contrasting violent action with poetic meditation in its re-telling of the 1985 seizure of the cruise liner Achille Lauro - is an easy piece to direct. Peter Sellars's original 1991 version was abstractly formalised, distancing the audience in Brechtian fashion from the emotive issue of Palestinian terrorism; Penny Woolcock's Channel 4 film went to the opposite extreme and created a taut cinematic thriller which insisted on the visceral reality of the situation.

But in Edinburgh, Anthony Neilson treads uncertainly between these two equally valid interpretations and doesn't seem to know where he wants to go. To be fair, he can't have been helped by working on what appears to be a budget of a hundred quid, max. The Festival Theatre's huge stage is empty, with only rudimentary suggestion of a ship. The terrorists emerge through the auditorium -- an effect spoilt by the management's forewarning -and the ship's passengers do some unintentionally hilarious coarse acting as they cower and shriek and look terrified.
From Israel, members of the Klinghoffer family again voiced their opposition to the way the story was told by Adams and his librettist. One element of the production that reviewers almost universally criticized was the decision to amplify the singers, which made some of them sound bad and obscured the orchestra's playing. Worst of all, the financially ruined Scottish Opera made the inexplicably tactless decision to give final termination papers (P45 forms) to the remaining 10 members of the chorus, before the series of four performances had even concluded. The business of opera is almost as unpredictable, unbelievable, outrageous, and heartbreaking as what you see on the stage.

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