It starts with a chorus, slow and measured. Black-robed women sing of the family house, now demolished, and of their memories of the tree in the courtyard, under which cool drinks were served to visitors in the heat of the day. Their consonants, particularly Cs and Ts, are sometimes soft, sometimes hard as an obscenity spat out in hatred. And gradually the mood shifts from melancholy nostalgia to present rage, a funeral procession turns into a demonstration, the back of the stage becomes a concrete slab wall and the chorus spits out, ‘Let the supplanter look upon his work. Our faith will take the stones he broke and break his teeth’.
When John Adams and Alice Goodman began work on The Death of Klinghoffer, the real life events on which it is based were less than five years old. Now, the hijacking of a cruise ship and the death of an elderly, disabled passenger have receded from our consciousness. More recent events, such as suicide bombings and 9/11, the building of Israel’s Wall, and the Arab Spring, are more salient in our minds. Director Tom Morris has chosen to bring in some of these directly – the recurring appearance of the Wall that fills the stage, or the use of green flags for the Arab demonstrations – and to leave others to resonate in our minds.
For an opera about a hijacking that ends in murder, it’s not a dramatic work. Nor does it use the fact that we know the eventual outcome (it’s in the title) to play with suspense. In one way, it’s not even about the events on board the Achille Lauro in 1985, but about the way those events were seen around the world. It’s consciously modelled as much on oratorio as opera, with its seven structuring choruses (one sadly removed from this production). The first chorus, of the supplanted Arabs, is followed by a chorus of Jews in 1948: ‘When I paid off the taxi I had no money left, And, of course, no luggage’. They bring in trees and plant them in the stony stage. It’s another slow, lyrical choral passage and, like the first, is poetic and allusive, not discursive.
If Adams and Goodman intended to enlighten their audiences on the history of the Middle East, they fail. But if they’d intended that, surely the dates and narrative events would not be relegated to projected captions? The strength of the libretto, which gives structure to the rich, expressive music, is in the poetic, evocative elements: the recurring references to birds, endlessly migrating and seeking places to nest, to perch for a while; to water flowing, a motif echoed in the projected waves rocking behind the scenes, and the ship’s wake unfurling behind like time passing.
Nevertheless, the very lack of dramatic structure, the long scenes of waiting, of the Captain endlessly listening – to the musings of hijacker Mamoud, to the frail human chatter of Marilyn Klinghoffer – do give an impression of the whole hijacking episode as a confused attack met with passivity and a keen desire to turn a blind eye. It’s interesting that one of the passengers whose first-person account is featured is an Austrian woman who locks herself into her cabin and remains there, undiscovered, throughout.
And in that sense, it is a truthful account of the Achille Lauro hijacking. Because the whole incident unwinds not with a horrible inevitability, or as a conflict of wills between actors with political and personal goals, but with a dangerous lack of direction, couched in frustration and a sense of grievance but politically naive and tactically hopeless.
A solitary man stood outside the Coliseum on opening night, with a small placard that read, ‘Disabled man murdered by terrorists. Murdered for being Jewish. Enjoy your evening at ENO’. Out of context, that is bizarre. Should we boycott all works of art based on tragic or horrible events, or events of which we disapprove? Demand that Picasso’s Guernica be removed from display, or refuse to read Wilfred Owen’s First World War poetry? It reflects the controversial origins of the opera, which Adams wrote deliberately to confront American response to Leon Klinghoffer’s death. He sought consciously to include both sides of the conflict that gave rise to the events, and this has outraged ever since those who see it as somehow justifying the murder.
The opera does no such thing, and neither does this production. To the extent that it invokes contemporary events – the Banksy-style graffiti on the concrete wall, for example – it invites us to make connections. But it’s much stronger when it leaves room for the work to unfurl the emotions of the situation and leave us to make up our own mind. It’s a postmodern approach. Bring in a variety of viewpoints and leave the audience to make up our own mind. But it’s better than agitprop. Mamoud’s horrific story of losing his brother, as a child in a refugee camp, does not diminish the humanity of Leon Klinghoffer, comforting his wife as she leaves him – as it turns out, for the last time. Nor does it detract from the heartrending pain of her last aria, which ends the opera, a sorrowful oboe echoing her grief, jagged strings underscoring her anger at the captain who embraced the hijackers.
You could see the Captain, indecisive (or decisively passive) and wanting to empathise with all sides, as a proxy for this postmodern approach. He hopes that by co-operating with the hijackers, everything will turn out all right. He believes that if only people could talk about how they felt, what they had suffered, conflicts would be resolved. But the work also seems critical of his refusal to make a stand.
As a contemporary work, it expresses a dilemma of our time. Do I take sides, or do I invite everyone in to have their say? Do I tell the story my way, or present the audience with fragments and let them make up their own narrative? And Tom Morris’s production grapples with this too, the blatant references to recent history suggesting a desire to take sides, the use of dance and visuals a way of breaking out of the literal, and the simplicity of the solo or two-person scenes, letting the human stories speak for themselves.
It’s uncluttered, not too intoxicated with technical gimmickry, and focused on the human scale. It works, but for me, it’s strongest when it steps back from the political. The projected historical captions are distracting and add a tendentious, didactic air.
This is not Brecht – if there is a lesson in The Death of Klinghoffer, it’s that we shouldn’t try to draw glib lessons from real events. The music, and the libretto that draws on natural speech and ancient texts, are beautiful in their own right, and all the performers here do it full justice. The only question it answers is, ‘How should an artist respond to the death of Leon Klinghoffer?’ And the answer is a wonderful work of art.