The retelling of the events of the hijacking of the ill-fated Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists is a strange yet wonderful opera
by Melinda Hughes
I was fearful of a political minefield when attempting to review John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer at the ENO and sadly only got to the production on its penultimate performance – but what an effect it's had on me.
First performed in Brussels twenty years ago, the retelling of the events of the hijacking of the ill-fated Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists is a strange yet wonderful opera. We are no strangers to contemporary stories turned into operatic hits; Jerry Springer, Nixon in China and Anna Nicole were all branded as “controversial” yet proved successful in personalizing a tragedy in one form or another with an opportunity for insight, reflection and reaction.
Leon Klinghoffer was a Jewish wheelchair-bound passenger killed by the terrorists and thrown overboard, yet despite others' criticism I did not find this an antisemitic opera in anyway. In fact, the opening choruses or laments were biblical, showing both Arab and Israeli plights and the interweaving of beautiful chorus of women who transformed from Arabs into Jews with a single removal of a veil or abaya cleverly done, illustrating how similar both cultures are and how lost everyone has become. “From day to day evil grows exponentially,” they sang.
The two most beautiful voices were those of the Palestinian mother Clare Presland, whose scene with her son was just outright glorious singing, and Richard Burkhard who sang Mamoud, one of the hijackers, his voice far too beautiful to be that of a hijacker. Burkhard did slightly resemble Borat, which was rather comical but this wasn’t the right time to have a good old chuckle, especially as I happened to be sitting next to his brother in the stalls.
<p> The libretto by Alice Goodman is quite esoteric at times and without the powerful aid of news titles on the screen to keep us in the plot, one could have been lost in a sinewy world of cryptic poetry. Despite a contemporary score which could frighten people off, I found the music addictive; it had at times an oratorio feel to it with beautiful female choruses and the a underlying beating percussion provided thrilling dramatic tension as the hijackers became more agitated.
The opera was sensitively and clearly conducted by Baldur Brönnimann and a special mention must go to the choreography by Arthur Pita, where dancer Jesse Kovarsky, playing Omar, had a stunning dance solo before shooting Klinghoffer. Dramatically I’m not sure if the music climaxes enough to a high point of drama but Tom Morris’ production certainly has done it justice. I’m all for projection; the “Free Palestine” graffiti which builds up over the year on a wall is very effective as is a general timeline which gave it a chilling documentary style constantly reminding us that these events did in fact happen.
There are lovely cameos by Kathryn Harries as the Austrian woman, Lucy Schaufer as the Swiss grandmother, and Kate Miller-Heidke as a dancer. Christopher Magiera and Jim Cleverton make a good pair as the Captain and first officer. Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer is simply a stunning singer and actress matched by a superb performance by Alan Opie as Leon Klinghoffer. His final aria after being shot was just haunting.
I’m not so au fait with John Adams. I’ve heard Nixon in China and loved it but seeing this opera makes me much less fearful of contemporary opera and I strongly urge anyone who can manage the last performance on 9th March to go.