The question is not whether it was appropriate for the Metropolitan Opera to stage this important and controversial piece, but rather, did they do it right? Did they mount it so that its poetic, dramatic and musical potential was well realized?
The challenge is great. Poet Alice Goodman’s libretto operates on multiple levels. Using poetic imagery, she not only explores the stories of the individual characters and some elements of the complex relationship between Jews and Palestinians but also larger human dilemmas. She sets the specifics in the context of the elements: earth (desert), water (ocean) and the sun (which effectively burns with fierce intensity throughout much of the second act of this production.)
The director, Tom Morris, has added the plant kingdom. Building on the Exiled Jews’ line, “the forest planted in memory,” he has the chorus bring on a small forest of young saplings – many of which are produced from large trunks. In so doing, he adds additional layers of meaning and memory – both that of the reforestation of Israel, but also that of the baggage of refugees everywhere, and specifically of the luggage lugged with false hopes to the camps.
It is at once a piece recalled in memory and an evocation of a present reality. As a memory piece Goodman does not need to tell the story sequentially and is free to present the events from multiple perspectives.
Here, too, Morris and his set designer, Tom Pye, have effectively amplified the libretto. By manipulating the set pieces they show us the killing of Klinghoffer first from the back and then from the front – vividly embodying different views. They also chose to portray the moment when Omar, a young terrorist, shoots – shifting our perspective in a different way. It effectively destroys any sympathy that we might have developed for him in his earlier aria/dance.
The success of this production stands on three pillars. One is the strong and subtle conducting of David Robertson. A second is the casting. The singing was uniformly excellent and the principals were believable. Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer (Alan Opie & Michaela Martens) presented a particularly interesting casting challenge, since it is crucial that their voices are beautiful and yet have an appropriately mature timbre. Both these demands were satisfyingly met. The third pillar of the success lies in the decision to reject the more abstract and cerebral approach taken in the original productions and to ground the work in particular and recognizable locales with the performers costumed in character-appropriate clothes.
The production team also chose not to represent Leon and Marilyn with dance doubles as was originally done, which increased our ability to empathize with their suffering. The convention was, however, retained for Omar. His is a mute role but for one major aria in which the piece takes the irredeemable step from threat to murder. The aria was sung by a woman in a dark burqa. However, she was not alone with him. On a receding diagonal behind her stood a line of identically dressed women evoking generations of tradition handed from mother to son. As she sang, Omar went through painful convulsions–of indecision? of fear? After the aria, he began his fateful walk towards Klinghoffer, gun in hand.
The set established three different locales – the first two were fluid and sometimes simultaneous. One was a lecture hall (or theater) represented by a lectern stage left; the other was the cruise ship, Achille Lauro, represented by railing pieces, deck chairs and by two moveable double-level ship’s deck units. When the Captain lies to the authorities about the violence onboard, the lectern becomes integrated with the ship as a stand for the phone. This choice effectively forces him to move out of memory to re-living one of his most painful choices during the high-jacking.
The final scene, in which the Captain admits to Marilyn that the terrorists have killed her husband, has a setting all its own. Inexorably, two giant panels close in – reducing the stage to a triangular space empty but for a single chair. Are we in the ship’s hold? Are we in a truth chamber or one of horrors? We don’t know, but it is a formidable and unforgiving space. And, indeed, neither the Captain nor Marilyn can escape.
Over a period of two dozen years, the director Peter Sellars brought together the team of John Adams and Alice Goodman to co-create three vitally important works: Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Dr. Atomic (2005). All are based on recent events with profound implications for our times. All three are oratorio-like. The stories are dramatic but their form is static. And yet we are drawn to these pieces. Confronted by the issues they embody – as we are in our media, our wallets and in the political choices made by our leaders, do we cry out for a distanced format? Do we seek a cool presentation that gives us time to review and reflect? Surely. And yet, in these quasi-operas, I miss the visceral excitement generated by works in which conflicts between unique individuals are directly portrayed in singing and acting. For me, the success of the Met’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer is that it restores some of this urgency, vitality and feeling.
Headline image credit: Full House at the Metropolitan Opera. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.