Sunday, February 26, 2012

Klinghoffer rings, clings and clangs

Yesterday was the opening night of The Death of Klinghoffer at English National Opera.

Rings: it's strong stuff, first of all. Tom Morris's staging is magnificent, overwhelming at times in the power of its imagery, dominated by the draining and dangerous Middle Eastern sun.

The concrete panels of that wall, the so-called "separation barrier" (it is a wall - I have touched the real thing), are present throughout. They not only provide the necessary claustrophobic resonances and contexts, but also form a screen for the film projections of the limestone hills, the rolling waves, and, for the finale of act 1, layer upon layer of graffiti. Some are grumbling that the wall wasn't there at the time of the Achille Lauro hijacking. The Death of Klinghoffer may have been written 20 years ago, but the issues are as current as ever and it would have been invidious for Morris to ignore how matters have progressed, or not progressed (those condemning the opera as anti-Zionist are in denial - this business is real and it won't conveniently vanish on demand). Besides, in certain ways Klinghoffer is very much an opera of its time - more of that later - and bringing it up to date for presentation now is an artistic necessity, even more than a political one.

Dance provides a marvellous opportunity to illuminate certain characters' inner feelings that might not otherwise emerge. Hats off to choreographer Arthur Pita, who has created a dance language that corresponds to the music, full of repeated fragments, patterns that build up associations, the physical depiction of the running and rerunning of memory and conflicted thought. Four men manoeuvre a figure representing Klinghoffer - perhaps the man he used to be in his youth? - while the wonderful Alan Opie (who has by then been killed) delivers the "aria of the falling body" against the backdrop of the terrible, hot sky. Omar, the terrorist who shoots Klinghoffer, is played by a dancer (Jesse Kovarsky) and says not a word: his fear and desperation are shown through his movements. As the British shipboard dancing girl (Kate Miller-Heidke) and her 1980s pop music remind us, it's the quiet ones you have to watch.

Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer partners Alan Opie in performances of great dignity, honesty and vulnerability. Their plight brings home the essence of this history of macrocosm and microcosm: two innocent, normal people are caught up in something not of their making and out of their control, their lives shattered as a result. The opera, at its core, is about how ordinary people are destroyed by world events. It is always the innocent who pay the price.

Christopher Magiera is a fine and believable Captain, thinking on his feet, especially touching in the scene where Mamoud (the eloquent baritone Richard Burkhard), a dead ringer for Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, opens up overnight and tells him his own story - an incident based, like many of the opera's scenes, on the captain's memoirs, extracts of which you can read in the programme. Superb vignettes by Kathryn Harries as the Austrian woman who describes locking herself in her bathroom and escaping unnoticed, all of it a first-rate take-off of Pierrot Lunaire sprechstimme; and by Clare Presland as the Palestinian Woman, implicitly Omar's mother, intensity suffusing every blazing note.

It's a huge score, full of marvels, embroidered with sizzling colours and layer upon layer of musical cause and effect; the inspired and beautiful choruses and the reflective arias for the Klinghoffers are perhaps its finest moments. The ENO chorus did the former proud and the orchestra ran, so to speak, a tight ship under the expert captaincy of Baldur Bronnimann. Rarely can it have been made so clear that "minimalist" is a misleading misnomer. The music is almost Wagnerian at times, in that the real action takes place in unfolding of the orchestral fabric, the singers floating over the top.

And what clings is its atmosphere. The aura of the music captures the same atmosphere I experienced every day when I visited the West Bank two years ago. This is what you breathe in at the background of each moment, even happy and relaxed ones: the quivering of nerve endings, the claustrophobia, the looming dread at the glimpse of a panel of wall or a soldier with a gun, the uncertainty of exactly what may lie around the next bend of the road through the hills. It's all there, in the trumpets, the pizzicati, the flickering repetitive figures on keyboard, or the way a quiet chorus can build up so fast to unanticipated levels of violence.

What you experience in this opera is therefore something almost miraculously authentic. It is similar to the way Puccini captures the emotional truth of Rodolfo at the end of La Boheme when he realises Mimi is dead - those stark horns evoke in one precise stroke one's own memories of the moment a loved one died: that was it, that was how it felt, that is it exactly. This particular form of genius is reserved for only the most empathetic of operatic composers - something that no writer or visual artist can convey with such instant visceral impact.

And then... the clangs. It's the words. Not the structure - a deconstructive collage of impressions is a fine device for conveying the fractured memories of a past event and furthermore provide much-needed variety. Nor the details of the scenes, many of which are based, as we've seen, on reality. And I find it admirably "even-handed". But the details of the lines, the images, the metaphors, the words themselves, had me longing for a red pen to plaster over the surtitles. There are too many words: and they are cumbersome words, syllabic, complex, very wordy words, and often meaningless words - poetry that might (perhaps) work on the page, but that must have given Adams the mother of all headaches. When he described the other day the storminess of his working relationship with the poet Alice Goodman, I thought he was joking. Now I'm not so sure.

How do you work with a libretto like that? How do you even think it is suitable for setting? It takes three to five times as long to sing a word as to speak it, and there is no doubt that opera requires prima la musica - the words must serve musical needs. Perhaps they do, in their own way. But still, is it a good idea to throw the audience off balance, distracting you, jerking you out of the flow to wonder what exactly an antlion is when you are supposed to be caught up in the emotions of the hijacking's aftermath? I mean, we're not all David Attenborough. And it's equally startling to hear a reference to the Dome of the Rock in the Chorus of Exiled Jews, which depicts a couple implicitly thrown apart by the Second World War and reunited unexpectedly after many traumas. The man compares the woman's scars to the holy sites of Israel, but, not to put too fine a point on it, the Dome of the Rock itself is not a site holy to Judaism - it is its location, the Temple Mount, that is. This, and the antlion, are only two meagre examples. I don't remember this being such a problem in Penny Woolcock's film - but that had been heavily cut. (Here is Wikipedia to explain the antlion.)

The words, too, give the opera its slightly dated feel. Self-indulgent, pretentious poetic stuff in opera libretti was very much a feature of opera of the 1960s-80s (Klinghoffer's premiere was in 1991). Its ultimate death blow, I suspect, was Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003)Good, concise, beautiful poetry is another matter: Birtwistle's The Minotaur has a libretto by David Harsent that is a work of art. Time to take another look at how Da Ponte did it.

The other thing that clanged - or rather made a very small clunk - was the protest luridly predicted by the Sunday Telegraph, which materialised as one (1) man with a placard outside the theatre - he has no doubt achieved the not-inconsiderable solo feat of being mentioned in each and every write-up.

In time, Klinghoffer should come to be regarded as what it is: a fine, thought-provoking opera, representative of its era, flawed but with many beauties, the latter including passages that show Adams at his most inspired. It will be no more scandalous, a hundred years from now, than Le nozze di Figaro - the original play of which was thought, in its day, to be condoning class conflict.

Six more performances until 9 March. Do go and see it.