OPERA REVIEW : A Belated 'Klinghoffer'


And now, from the folks who brought you "Nixon in China". . . .

The opera, of course, is "The Death of Klinghoffer," a rambling, quasi-moralistic sociopolitical treatise with semi-minimalist music by John Adams and a self-consciously poetic libretto by Alice Goodman.

Conceived and staged in terms of stylized meditation by Peter Sellars--with Mark Morris adding dancerly decoration expansion and punctuation--"Klinghoffer" is doggedly post-modern, chronically controversial and, I think, terminally analytical.

Los Angeles happens to be one of the six sources of sponsorship for this spectacular exercise in trendy topicality, which received its much ballyhooed first performance in Brussels in March, 1991. The West Coast premiere was supposed to take place at the Music Center earlier this year, but fiscal problems apparently forced a postponement until next September. The introductory honors thus fell by default to San Francisco.

Lucky San Francisco? Maybe.

The non-capacity audience at the second local performance, Friday, mustered polite respect but little palpable enthusiasm. That seemed reasonable. Adams' score, neither shocking nor particularly challenging, proved contemplative--and repetitive--literally to a fault. Goodman's text, a complex series of relatively even-handed, sometimes simplistic musings on the universal agonies shared by Arabs and Jews, traced precarious sociopolitical lines through a mass of expressive murk.

The structure owes more to Bach oratorios than to any obvious operatic models. The action, if it can be called such, is essentially philosophical.

This is not the blood-and-guts melodrama one might have expected about hijacking and murder on the Achille Lauro in 1985. Nor does Adams' opera resemble a singing docudrama. This, basically, is an exploration of ideas and ideals, and a rather pretentious exploration at that.

The musical intentions are almost always lofty, as are the literary inventions. Sellars seconds the creative motions with an essentially abstract, stubbornly neutral, indulgently introspective staging scheme. The pervasive look is gleaming high-tech: George Tsypin's multilevel metal-grid set, outfitted with closed-circuit video, supports as the central nautical metaphor.

Dunya Ramicova's neutral-mufti costumes eliminate any barriers that separate aggressor and victim. With several singers undertaking multiple roles and dancers serving as the protagonists' alter egos, there is little need here to define specific characterization, little opportunity to resort to conventional theatricality.

Adams can write a catchy comic-relief number when he has to. He gives a British dancing-girl an amusing little scherzo in the second act. The composer even comes up--too late, alas--with a moving monologue for Klinghoffer's grief-stricken widow at the end. There are hints of potential dramatic acuity here and there--in a whomping chorus or an otherworldly gymnopedie that accompanies the slow-motion descent of Klinghoffer's corpse from ship to sea.

Much of "Klinghoffer," however, is turgid, mechanical and predictable. Also boring.

Adams cranks out a lot of formula agitation-music, a lot of formula busy-music, a lot of formula chaos-music. Ultimately, the fusion of Xeroxed arpeggio devices and cinematic slushpump excesses is unsettling.

Then there is the problem of electronic obfuscation. Adams likes to use amplified filler in the pit and body-microphone distortion on the stage. The tinny intrusions subtract more than they add.

Numerous critics have found traces of anti-Semitism in Goodman's cluttered, would-be ecumenical libretto. For this reason, one controversial scene in which a Jewish family in New Jersey chats about the world situation has been cut.

One may wince--or, as happened Friday at the War Memorial Opera House--nervously laugh when a terrorist (a fellow with the unfortunate name of Rambo) declaims that "Wherever poor men are gathered, they can find Jews getting fat." One may register discomfort at a narrative that virtually equates victim and assassin. But this is the stuff of intentionally two-sided poster art. Ultimately, the linguistic problems in "Klinghoffer" seem more disturbing than any moral ambivalences.

Goodman's precious, often ornate verses simply do not translate well as vocal lines. And, compounding the difficulty, Adams does not seem to know how to make the words sing. Even with the voices--legitimate operatic voices--miked, it is all but impossible to comprehend this text without relying on the ever-distracting supertitles projected high above the set. This strikes at least one reluctant reader as the authors' admission of communicative defeat.

It may be worth noting, incidentally, that Goodman herself protested the use of supertitles at the Brussels premiere. The captions were subsequently reinstated, however, at Adams' insistence.

Sellars moves his cast up and down the scaffolding with picturesque fluidity. He literally zooms in for televised close-ups to enhance intimacy in the vast, open spaces. He discreetly incorporates historical news-reel footage during the prologue (then drops the useful device). He fuses the static stances of the singers organically with the agitated maneuvers of their dancing doubles.

This, without a doubt, is enlightened modern stagecraft. It also is cool, tough, intellectual. The distancing of the emotions is, no doubt, intentional. Forced understatement does little in this context, unfortunately, to elevate pathos. Perhaps we all are too close to reality in "The Death of Klinghoffer."

The cast, mostly culled from Sellars' dedicated road company, is fearless. Sheila Nadler quietly dominates the stage as the stoic Marilyn Klinghoffer. Sanford Sylvan gives a gutsy, articulate performance as the central martyr, his pain poignantly echoed in choreographed mime by Keith Sabado.

James Maddalena blusters deftly as the unhappy Captain. Janice Felty offers virtuosic cameos as three vastly dissimilar passengers. The Palestinian intruders are sympathetically--OK, heroically--portrayed by Thomas Hammons, Eugene Perry and Thomas Young. Stephanie Friedman's assignment has been diminished by the omission of the gossip episode, but she makes the most of the bellicose stances of young Omar.

The Mark Morris Dance Group goes through its compressed contortions with splendid discipline. But the San Francisco Opera chorus musters neither the precision nor the clarity needed to illuminate the crucial reflections of the masses. Perhaps the conductor was to blame.

The conductor, ironically, was Adams himself, taking over the baton in San Francisco from Kent Nagano. He is a competent technician, and no one could complain that he didn't know the score. Too bad knowing the score and knowing how to bring out the best in it are not necessarily the same thing.

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