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The Death of Klinghoffer, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Death of Klinghoffer, English National Opera

The Death of Klinghoffer, English National Opera

John Adams's controversial opera not anti-Semitic - and not very good

Leon (Alan Opie) and Marilyn Klinghoffer (Michaela Martens): a noble coupleAll images by Richard Hubert Smith

In October 1985 four Palestinian terrorists boarded the Achille Lauro cruise liner, took the 400-odd passengers hostage, shot an old disabled American Jew dead and flung his body overboard. Of all the many atrocities in the long war between the Palestinians and Israelis the murder of Leon Klinghoffer has always struck me as being one of the more morally cut and dried incidents. Hardly worthy of any kind of lengthy debate, let alone dramatic exposition.

But the successful trio behind Nixon in China (Peter Sellars, Alice Goodman and John Adams) thought differently and proceeded to turn the cold-blooded killing into a opera.

Much of the critical reaction to the premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer in 1991 was angrily unfavourable. Reviewers accused the trio of anti-Semitism, of cashing in on others' pain, of romanticising terrorism and of anti-bourgeois laziness. The work was labelled controversial and offensive. Last night it received its London debut. Controversial? Offensive? Not half as much as many have claimed. Certainly few of the main political objections stand up to any scrutiny. You'd have to be very literal-minded to consider the work anti-Semitic, for example. Klinghoffer might contain anti-Semitic lines ("wherever poor men are gathered you can find Jews getting fat"; "America is one big Jew" etc). But these are delivered by Palestinian terrorists. And Palestinian terrorists tend, on the whole, to be anti-Semitic. It kind of comes with the job.

Naturally, lazy political thinking frames the work

Neither are the four fanatics romanticised. At least not in last night's Tom Morris production. Rather, the hijackers were characterised as a brutish, shrill lot with very little humanity and absurd ideals. There is one aria by Mamoud (sung with perhaps a little too much English enunciation by Richard Burkhard) which was perhaps meant to make us think this guy's got depth. But the aria is so weighed down by its long, tedious bird metaphor that the brain dozes off before one ever gets to questions of Mamoud's morality. One just thinks: what a boring, pretentious loser.

The others terrorists are given a monochromatic, strident musical language and deliver so much thuggish blocking that, even if you weren't inclined to at first, you're soon forced to side with the Klinghoffers. The Palestinian chorus is no less nauseating; these are people full of violent and unreasonable thoughts ("Let the supplanter look upon his work / Our faith will take the stones he broke / And break his teeth"). In fact, compared to the admirably brave and sympathetic stand from Leon Klinghoffer (the excellent Alan Opie) and moving eloquence of his wife, Marilyn (Michaela Martens), the Palestinians are given a singularly brutish role - not undeserved.

Far more offence should have been felt by the maligned troupe of British dancers stationed on the ship, who are represented in the opera by a total air-head (Kate Miller-Heidke) who recollects the whole hijacking (utterly implausibly) in one big giggle. (And if you didn't get the point, her music bubbles up from flutter-tonguing brass and woodwind with a lightness and fizziness that is a clear echo of her feeble mind.) Neither she nor Christopher Magiera's Captain - both of whom represent a strand of insensitive lower-middle class doltishness that Adams and Goodman clearly loathe more than anything else - hit upon believable realisations. 

Naturally, lazy political thinking frames the work. Palestinian savagery, for example, is blamed on the 1948 exile of Palestinians (overlooking the fact that this was self-inflicted). The concrete slabs of the West Bank barrier (which has done more to make peace possible than any other single thing) looms ominously as a backdrop, blocking and caging characters at various times. None of this represents anything more than a depressing reflection of the well-intentioned but badly misinformed consensus of the politically ignorant artistic classes. 

Even in 1991 no one thought the electronic synthesiser a serious instrument

There were only two things in this production that were truly offensive: the direction and the music. Most offensive was the idea that this thin score was John Adams's finest to date. Finer than Nixon in China? Doctor Atomic? What an insult. The truth is that Adams did not have a happy compositional time in the early 1990s. Attempting to shift his block-like early Postminimalist language towards something more conducive to the kind of Romantic opera he wanted to write was not easy. In Klinghoffer he finds himself embarrassingly marooned between the two musical worlds, trying to square the mutually incompatible ideas of the post-minimalist chug with the Romantic concept of development. Inspiration fails him again and again in the orchestral writing. As does taste. Even in 1991 no one thought the electronic synthesiser a serious instrument. There were enormous problems with pacing in the first half and precision from conductor Baldur Brönnimann in the second.

Tom Morris's staging, on the other hand, at least began well. The exiled Palestinian chorus undressed to become the exiled Jewish chorus. Neat. Even the fatuous political statement that was the wall backdrop had one advantage of adding an attractive grainy texture to the photography and videography (Fin Ross) that was projected onto it. But with the entry of the Achille Lauro and the sudden demand to juggle two storylines and a spiritual undercurrent, Morris lost all clarity of purpose and never regained it. Thank God, then, for Marilyn Klinghoffer's final aria, a powerful, righteous and long overdue howl of rage from the excellent Michaela Martens that rescued the entire evening. 


Oh dear, a politically inept and ignorant review. Klinghoffer attracts them like flies. Your absurd and clueless mischaracterisation of the Palestinian nakba is par for the course amongst zionists. Pity you couldn't feel the power of the work, and the equal condemnation of terrorists and idealists on both sides. Your condescension towards this eloquent work is based on your feeble political 'analysis'.

I am glad that in the first review I've seen of this opera that you have dismissd the frankly ridiculous notion that this piece if offensive in terms of its content. The feeling I got from the opera was at worst anti-Palestine, let alone anti-Semitic. However, I'm disappointed your review seemed to ignore the most poignant and (in my opinion) important parts of the opera: the intermittent choruses. For a chorus to learn this challenging music whilst singing Offenbach and Strauss (because don't forget, they are now performing Klinghoffer and Hoffman in turn, and their final night of Rosenkavalier is next week) and open the opera itself is an extremely huge undertaking. I was personally left deeply shaken after the opening two choruses, and I cannot believe anyone in the audience would be impressed by the music and performance of the Night Chorus. For a bunch of normal singers, they were certainly intimidating, not "nauseating" as you put it. Whilst I appreciate your comments, I think there should be more credit given to the chorus, who I think made the opera.

The Chorus were indeed fabulous. But the programme book twice mentions a "ravishingly beautiful chorus that opens the second act...that is not included in these performances at ENO". Why not?

Unfortunately Toronyi-Lalic's views on Israel are well documented so it was never going to be an unbiased review. Why was he chosen to review it?

I think you'll find that Leon Klinghoffer was an American citizen, not an Israeli

Mea culpa. The review has been corrected.

And an acknowledgement of the edit/correction? #shabby Furthermore, you may wish to amend your picture caption. That is not the Klinghoffers, but the performers playing them

I refer to the line in your article: "the Palestinians are given a singularly brutish role - not undeserved." How on earth do you expect your views to be taken seriously when you come up with such dismissive rhetoric? The Palestinians have been seen, largely due to Zionist control of the world's media, as terrorists right down to the last child whereas in reality they are the brave resistance fighters who've been given a bad press by those who conveniently forget or whitewash the events in Mandate Palestine in the years before the state of Israel was born. If music reviews are your thing, stick to them without spouting nonsense about a political situation you fail to grasp.

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