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A 2005 review of The Death of Klinghoffer
Last uploaded : Sunday 19th Oct 2014 at 12:13
Contributed by : Carol Gould


Editor's note: I have somewhat revised my views on the issues contained in this review. Having seen it more recently in an English National Opera production at the London Coliseum I think the opera is a brilliant piece. Several American Jewish community groups have been successful in pressuring the Metropolitan Opera's General Manager Peter Gelb to cancel the Simulcast of the opera this coming week. I find this abhorrent. Likewise I no longer feel these productions undermine Jewish-Muslim relations. Israel and the world Jewish community are strong and resilient and are capable of handling with maturity artistic depictions of horrors on both sides.

'The Death of Klinghoffer' at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre
27th August 2005

The first thing one has to put on record about 'The Death of Klinghoffer' is the bone-chilling event at the end of the opera. When the artists came out for their bows on the night we attended, the applause was hearty but polite. When the men playing the Palestinian terrorists came out, the audience at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre went wild. Very possibly the upper seats were jammed with jihadists but the difference in tone of the appreciation shown the other performers and that shown the Palestinians was stunning. Yes, Kamel Boutros, Oriol Roses, D'Arcy Bleiker and Darren Abrahams were superb but this incident stayed in the mind.

'The Death of Klinghoffer,' by John Adams with libretto by Alice Goodman and directed by Anthony Neilson, is the story of the hijacking by the Palestinian Liberation Front (not PLO) of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in Mediterranean waters. After the Palestinians' and Jews' choruses and the Captain's aria, the terrorists jump out of the seats in the audience and 'kidnap' various audience members who are actually part of the Scottish Opera cast. This gimmick is cheap and quite terrifying for those of us who remember the Moscow Theatre siege, but as the British papers had warned audiences ahead of time that this would take place, there was no fear of heart failure amongst ticket holders.

The opening chorus, which sets the scene for the entire evening, is the in-your-face lament of the Palestinian who has lost his home and can no longer sit in his courtyard with a cool drink or watch the birds come and go. Nothing is left of the stone house. Embellishment with large subtitles adds to the power of this imagery; it is a kind of political onslaught comparable to an overdose-with-music of Robert Fisk and Suzanne Goldenberg rolled into one. (It is notable that the librettist is Jewish and American, although Goodman converted to Christianity several years ago and is now an Anglican curate.) The second chorus, supposedly of the Jews, is less powerful and leaves one bemused: were it not in the programme one would not even know this is the Jewish part of the opening scene.

The events on the liner are obscured by scenes that try to show the humanity of the terrorists. One wonders what sort of opera might have been composed by a team that had some element of sympathy for the terror-plagued Israelis. Heartbreakingly, it is virtually impossible to understand one word sung in a long aria by the 'British Dancing girl' and one suspects she has some vital information to impart. Jonathan Summers as the doomed passenger, the elderly, wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, singled out by the terrorists for being Jewish and American, is also muffled. Having attended two Festival talks about the opera, it is evident many audience members were unable to comprehend large swathes of the libretto. Why subtitles were not used throughout the production is unclear.

It is also unclear whether or not the use of the dancing girl as a poster-carrier is in the original libretto. Bad taste is taken to its limit when she carts large placards onstage announcing that Klinghoffer merchandise, t-shirts and so forth are on sale in the lobby. To add to the bad taste, she comes onstage after the curtain calls with more cards thanking the audience for coming to the show.

Notwithstanding our shock at the imapssioned ovation reserved for the singers playing the terrorists, there is no doubt the four singers are outstanding. Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Marilyn Klinghoffer gave the most powerful performance.

Considering this is Anthony Neilson's first stab at directing an opera it is a monumental achievement; he manages to convey the atmosphere of entrapment of the passengers (anyone who has been on a cruise will admit feeling trapped even in the best of circumstances) , and his full use of the stage is commendable.

The Adams score is uneven, but this may be due to the many cuts made; this piece does nothing to improve Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations.


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