Opera Review: The Death of Klinghoffer

Keith Ian Polakoff
One of the most consequential (and controversial) operas of the last half-century finally receives its Southern California premiere performance in a scintillating production that brings out surprising subtleties as well as intractable issues.

"Nixon in China" composer John Adams' topical opera about the 1985 terrorist hijacking of a cruise ship docks in Long Beach.

The 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by four Palestinian terrorists who ultimately murder, in rationalized pique, the titular elderly wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger from New Jersey shocked much of the world. Yet in retrospect the unceasingly escalating carnage of brutal political violence of all stripes over the last three decades has in horrid ways rendered this isolated assassination almost appallingly quaint in its singularity. Fresh from their merited international success with the clever and enduring topical opera Nixon in China, composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman were able to secure a commission for this subject, literally torn from the headlines, by a consortium of six prestigious companies (among them, The Los Angeles Opera, which despite its long and fruitful relationship with Adams, would not venture to mount it).

Upon its 1991 premiere in Brussels and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Death of Klinghoffer ignited immediate controversy over its political intentions, as it gives passionate voice to the views of its characters, inflaming any perfervid believer who can countenance no utterance of an opposing view without accusing it of being an endorsement. Indeed, the core value espoused by Klinghoffer is that colloquy among enemies comprises the only conceivable path to peace, and the opera’s greatest profundity is that it contrives to transform our act of listening and witnessing into a parallel model for the process of civilized discourse. Its secondary achievement is that enormity of its action and the despair of its argument is conveyed through such gorgeously sustained music and poetic language. For all his subsequent accolades, this may well be John Adams’ finest opus.

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The Long Beach Opera was destined from birth to tackle this important piece of opera maudit, which lies so firmly within its brief to attempt the worthiest outliers beyond the canon. Helmed by James Robinson, who directed the work in St. Louis in 2011 in its first U.S. production in the 20 years since its debut, the visual spectacle in the felicitous Terrace Theater in Long Beach suggests a scale suitably both epochal and intimate. While this rendition may not approach the sonic power of the original Kent Nagano recording nor the palpable immediacy of the problematic 2003 U.K. film, there is no question that The Death of Klinghoffer was meant above all to be experienced as a live stage work, and this penetrating production fulfills that truest realization of the nature of this significant epitome of musical theater.

Cast almost entirely with seasoned LBO regulars, the solos and chorus carry well in the hall, projecting the urgency of Goodman’s rhetoric and traversing the challenging vocal lines with not so much virtuosic ease as committed fervor, buoyed by an exceptional attention to inner detail from the pit conducted by company artistic director Andreas Mitisek, the bombast contained by a more supple appreciation for the orchestral interplay of voices. Even so, although physically many of the singers do make for distractingly odd embodiments of their roles, if we can suspend disbelief in corpulent sopranos playing carnal vamps, this is not so hard to manage with such intelligent vocalists so sensitively in tune with multiple meanings of the text.

Yes, the quartet of terrorists does voice anti-Semitic views along with their articulated grievances. It is possible to infer, particularly in light of some design and blocking choices here, that the opera might be suggesting a correspondence between their historical plight and that of the Jews themselves. As an unreconstructed Zionist capable of harsh disapproval of some Israeli policies and equivocation of others, I think that mispresents the opera’s position, fundamentally a dedicated belief that all suffering must be heard, and all violence is both individually and collectively unconscionable. There is a rigorous refusal to rabble-rouse in the way that even a Captain Phillips cannot manage to avoid.

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In the final scene, a remorseful Captain (Lee Gregory) must disclose, clumsily, to Marilyn Klinghoffer (Suzan Hanson) the slaying of her husband (Robin Buck), prompting a bereft aria of uncompromising grief. There is no closure at the finish, no redemption, no solace. Yet nevertheless The Death of Klinghoffer still accomplishes a transformative experience, in that it artistically equips the audience with the emotional insight to process the intractably insupportable and experience the suggestion of a possibility for even incremental forward movement. I do believe the last 30 years to have been something of a resurrected Golden Age for new opera, and this glorious conundrum of frustrated humanism rests among the company near its apex. 

Venue: Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention Center (runs through Mar. 22)

Cast: Lee Gregory, Roberto Perlas Gomez, Jason Switzer, Robin Buck, Suzan Hanson, Peabody Southwell, Danielle Marcelle Bond, Alex Richardson

Composer: John Adams

Libretto: Alice Goodman

Director: James Robinson

Conductor: Andreas Mitisek

Set designer: Allen Moyer

Costume designer: James Schuette

Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind

Video designer: Greg Emetaz

Sound designer: Bob Christian