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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Opera Review: Sailing the Seas of Hatred

As protestors shout, the Met unveils The Death of Klinghoffer
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Klinghoffers (Alan Opie, in wheelchair, Michaela Martins, center) confront terrorists 
Rambo (Ryan Speedo Green, with rifle) and Omar (Jesse Kovarsky, in red shirt)
 aboard the Achille Lauro in Act II of The Death of Klinghoffer. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera opened a month ago, but Monday night's company premiere of John Adams' troubling 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer was the real opening night, the  most significant event of this young season. The opera, offered in a handsome, disquieting staging by director Tom Morris in collaboration with the English National Opera is a strong argument for more stagings of modern opera by contemporary composers. This is a sharply executed and starkly beautiful production that offered genuine food for thought.

Mr. Adams' opera (the libretto is by Alice Goodman) attempts to use the terrorist murder of Jewish tourist Leon Klinghoffer aboard the cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985 as a microcosm for the greater conflict between Israel and Palestine. The Met's decision to stage the English National Opera production became a lightning rod earlier this year. After a meeting with the Anti-Defamation League, Met general manager Peter Gelb canceled the Met Live in HD broadcast. But this only fueled calls for the opera's withdrawal.  Pundits, religious leaders and local political hacks flocked to the fray. Most of them had never heard or seen the opera.

The premiere was met with howls of protest inside the Metropolitan Opera House (three people were ejected, one charged with disorderly conduct). Outside, protesters shouted and speechified from across Columbus Avenue, while others sat in a line of wheelchairs across the steps. The campus itself was fenced off. Ticketholders had to pass three NYPD and Lincoln Center security checkpoints, and bag check was mandatory (and for once, free.) Inside, uniformed, armed NYPD officers marched up and down the aisles and steps.

The kerfuffle threatened to overshadow the opera itself, a musically moving and deadly serious meditation on the futility of violence and the general failure of humanity in the face of crisis. The performance by the Met orchestra and chorus (under the leadership of David Robertson and Donald Palumbo, respectively) was taut and compelling, with Mr. Adams' minimalist rhythms blossoming into dark, deadly flowers of sound. A sense of dread in the opening choruses (one of exiled Palestinians, the second of exiled Jews) built momentum preparing the audience for the awful events to come.

The Achille Lauro was captained by Paulo Szot, the Broadway baritone who has been a recent fixture at the Met. Mr. Szot's light, slightly burry baritone suited the part of the Captain, his narratives, introspection and occasional waffling reminding one of Captain Vere in Britten's Billy Budd. The Captain's narratives, detailing the luxury and ease of life aboard the cruise ship eventually break down into uncertainty, his worst moment coming when he lies to Marylin Klinghoffer, telling her that her murdered husband is actually in the ship's hospital below decks.

His opposite number was Molqi (Sean Pannikar) the terrorist leader given to his own brand of fateful indecision. The remaining three hijackers are played with strong personalities, from the psychotic, racist Rambo (the bass Ryan Speedo Green, stentorian and menacing) to Mamoud (Aubrey Allcock) whose long scene with the Captain at the end of Act I provides some unexpected depth for both men. These are not sympathetic portraits, not even the youthful Omar (danced by debut artist Jesse Kovarsky.) His inner conflict over actually killing Klinghoffer is portrayed with singing (there is an aria for a Palestinian Woman, sung by Maya Lahyani) and dance, the act of killing was somehow anticlimactic.

Klinghoffer himself (Alan Opie) dominates the second act. Mr. Opie, a sturdy British baritone uses physical business to portray Klinghoffer's partial paralysis, but there is nothing gimmicky about the power of his dark instrument or the raw nerves touched by this emotional portrayal. A sense of resignation and helplessness permeates his music, lifted only when he is shot. At that point, he rises from his wheelchair. His shade addressing the audience like the Ghost in Hamlet, singing with force and dignity. (And unlike the real Klinghoffer, Mr. Opie was not violently thrown off the back of the stage.)

As the crisis ended and the terrorists marched down the gangplank of the ship (exiting through orchestra seating) the last words were given to Marilyn Klinghoffer, the dead man's widow. Michaela Martens had searing power in this final scene, bringing home the raw grief and loss of her husband. The tenderness and humanity of her loss might be this work's greatest achievement. As she faced off against the pseudo-heroic bluster of Mr. Szot's Captain, this bereaved widow had the power to do what Mr. Adams and Ms. Goodman might have been trying to accomplish with this opera: weighing the consequence of political violence against the loss of human life. In this final scene, they succeeded.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.