The Metropolitan Opera had a mess on its hands.
Hundreds of people stood, or sat in rented wheelchairs, outside Lincoln Center on Monday to protest its production of John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer," an operatic depiction of the high-profile 1985 Palestinian attack on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the shooting of a Jewish American passenger.
In one speech, the Met was accused of promulgating an "operatic Kristallnacht," presumably equating staging "Klinghoffer" to the notorious Nazi street attacks against German and Austrian Jews in 1938. There was a massive police presence. Some at the Met had reportedly received death threats.
During the performance itself, a few hecklers in the house booed, and reportedly the fellow who shouted, "The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven" at the end of the first scene was arrested.
But heckling and certainly booing at the opera is an age-old tradition, and this was minor-league stuff. What was remarkable was that a stunningly conducted performance of "Klinghoffer," an opera whose relevance won't go away, proved such an intense meditation on death, religion and history that it seemed to disarm dissent.
In fact, by creating a frisson, the demonstrators actually helped. I have attended many "Klinghoffer" performances, including the Brussels premiere in 1991, when the fear was not from Jewish protesters but Palestinian terrorists, and metal detectors made their first appearance at a European opera house. I have never witnessed so attentive or, other than the hecklers, caring an audience for "Klinghoffer."
The result was one of the better nights at the Met. Demonized by the demonstrators, Adams got a roaring reception during the curtain call. Opera, that supposedly irrational art form, became a clarion voice for reason.
The hero was conductor David Robertson, who set a tone of calm but uncompromising authority. He emphasized color and clarity, getting the Met's celebrated orchestra to play Adams' richly detailed orchestration and complicated rhythms with gleaming gorgeousness.
The Met's equally celebrated chorus was the other star. The opera, which was conceived by Peter Sellars (who directed the original production), takes its impetus from Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" and is framed by weighty choruses reflecting on the religious and historical significance of night and day, of the ocean and desert, of the Palestinian and Israeli experiences of exile (a chorus elucidating the biblical story of Hagar and the angel was unfortunately cut). The chorus' sensitivity to the intonation of word and tone made a huge effect.
The staging was by Tom Morris, the British director responsible for "Jerry Springer, The Opera," last year's production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica and, with Marianne Elliott, "War Horse," and originated at English National Opera in London two years ago.
Instead of retaining the intent of the "Klinghoffer" creators, which had also included a major contribution by choreographer Mark Morris, to treat a news event as a ritual, to explore motivations and seek healing as Bach did in his passion, Tom Morris relies on conventionally graphic theater.
He does, though, usefully retain Bach's approach of treating the death of Jesus as a communal affair, an attempt by survivors to piece together what has happened from their different memories.
The production — a complex and well-executed affair with sets by Tom Pye, video by Finn Ross and superbly subtle amplification by Mark Grey — begins as a gathering of the passengers and the ship's captain and crew telling their stories, with flashbacks of the action. In London, the show, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann as though it were an aggressive thriller, came across as cheap theater. At the Met, there was far more restraint.
Morris bends over backward not to offend. Klinghoffer doesn't appear in the libretto until the opera's second act, which is after intermission. The first belongs to the terrorists, their grievances and their ideals. This is what has caused most of the controversy, because the most eloquent of the terrorists, Mamoud (bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock), is so persuasive that he nearly sways the captain to his side.
But Mamoud also reveals a tragic flaw around which the opera hinges, when he says that dialogue with the Israelis would remove his reason for being. His mission is to die as a sacrifice for his cause. There is no turning back.
Morris' terrorists, though, pretty much act as one-dimensional thugs. And Klinghoffer is seen throughout on deck in his wheelchair, making everything revolve around his victimhood. This mitigates the deeper shock of his murder, when the intractability of the terrorists sinks in.
But there are also some helpful choices. The youngest and most idealistic terrorist, Omar, is a mezzo-soprano role. Morris makes Omar be a dancer (Jesse Kovarsky). His aria seeking holy death is sung by a veiled Palestinian woman (mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani).
Alan Opie's Klinghoffer and Paulo Szot's Captain (both baritones) are gruff. But both manage to convey the unutterable sadness of the opera's last scenes, which include Klinghoffer's haunting aria sung by his lifeless body as it sinks in the sea.
The Captain, unable to console Klinghoffer's wife, Marilyn, must face her final rage and despair. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens made that shattering.
"Klinghoffer" has its moments of necessary trivialization helping set tragedy in relief, from a British dancing girl (Kate Miller-Heidke) and an Austrian woman hiding in her cabin (Theodora Hanslowe) — and they were handled with excellent grace.
"Who could have imagined such a business, such meshugas?" Mrs. Klinghoffer sings, with the Yiddish phrase for craziness, not realizing her husband is about to be shot. The irony makes his murder all the more horrifying.
Such meshugas at the Met, indeed. But the irony is not, this time, tragic. Whatever lapses on stage, the extraordinary essence of "Klinghoffer" comes through in the music, and it is a great shame that the Met has been pressured into removing "Klinghoffer" from its HD cinema and weekly radio broadcast schedules.