Critical reaction to last week’s U.S. premiere here of the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” was mixed.
At one extreme, the production was heralded as representing the coming of age of American opera; at the other, it was sneered at by London’s Sunday Times as the kind of thing that should “go down as a treat in California, where ‘sharing an experience’ is part of everyday life.”
Indeed, just about the only area of agreement in the East Coast reviews was that Thursday’s premiere performance, given by BAM Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and conducted by Kent Nagano, was excellent, and every singer a superb singing actor.
“Klinghoffer” is the latest opera by composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars, with choreography by Mark Morris--the team that brought you “Nixon in China.” “Klinghoffer” premiered three months ago in Brussels and is to be performed in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1992-93 season.
The opera is about the divisiveness of the modern world that resulted in the killing of the American tourist Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985.
Though sometimes characterized as docu-opera, “Klinghoffer” has little in common with the television docudramas of the Achille Lauro hijacking but is instead an intensely serious meditation on the historical incident presented somewhat abstractly, its musical structure influenced by the Bach Passions--huge eschatological choruses anchor the score--its semi-abstract staging played against George Tsypin’s gigantic metallic constructivist set (influenced by Islamic geometric patterns) evoking everything from stylized ancient theater to stylized music videos.
But it is the politics of “Klinghoffer"--the creators seeking catharsis through making vital the strong passions on all sides--that have stirred the greatest outrage.
Edward Rothstein, the New York Times new chief music critic, wrote that the libretto lacked historical insight by focusing on the victims’ personal tragedy and that its characters “remain distant figures, remote from either sympathy or horror.”
Newsday critic Tim Page, who described the opera as “pompous, turgid, derivative and hopelessly confused,” even more strongly objected to Goodman’s libretto, which he felt characterized the terrorists as “ real men --Rousseau’s noble savages made flesh--as opposed to the opera’s nattering, ineffectual Jewish characters. . . .”
But Richard Dyer, in a long, lyric review in the Boston Globe, and Bill Zakariasen, in the New York Daily News, both found such responses simplistic.
“You can dismiss its politics as naive only by dismissing those things in it you don’t want to hear,” Dyer wrote.
And he explained that what some found obscure in the work is the result of “irreconcilable points of view within which the events unfurl--points of view so charged that they are seldom simultaneously present in accounts and analysis of such events, although their simultaneous presence is responsible for them.”
For Zakariasen, too, the opera transcends the easy categorizing of right and wrong.
“Life and the world have never been that simple,” he wrote. “It may be that no other opera has so definitively expressed the human condition of our time as ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’ ”
Adams’ score was differently heard by differently attuned ears. Susan Elliott, who called it “brilliant,” and “grandly dramatic” in the Post, noted in it the combining of minimalist pulse with “a rich harmonic landscape that calls to mind Shostakovich and Debussy.” But Page thought it “warmed over Vaughan Williams,” with “gestures appropriated from composers as diverse as Puccini and Philip Glass.” And Rothstein, complaining of the “severely limited range” of the music, called it “film-scorish impressionism.”
For Dyer, the composer’s music has grown “more confident in its reach toward darker places, more competent in its technique” in “Klinghoffer” than in “Nixon.” Although he felt it had weak patches, he admired its “many original and felicitous touches of orchestration, of harmony, of swerves of melody, of sustaining and disturbing rhythm.”
What of Sellars’ production, which has undergone a considerable amount of dramatic focusing since Brussels along with the addition of supertitles, and Morris’ choreography, which incorporates danced doubles to the characters throughout much of the opera?
A “monochromatic stage show” to Rothstein, but a “true modern realization of Richard Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk . . . in which all the performing arts figure equally” to Zakariasen. “The simplest and most complex of Sellars’ accomplishments to date,” to Dyer, who feels that Sellars’ best work is “the deepest and finest being done on the stage today.”