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April 12, 2012

The politics of The Death of Klinghoffer is appalling, but it is not the worst aspect of the opera, says David Conway: John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer at the ENO

Posted by David Conway

John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer
English National Opera, London Coliseum
Libretto by Alice Goodman
conducted by Baldur Brönnimann
directed by Tom Morris
25 February - 9 March 2012

When I got back to London recently after three years in Kyiv, there was of course one big question I had to face - should I get a ticket for The Death of Klinghoffer at the ENO? In favour - it couldn't possibly be worse than those staples of the Kyiv opera house Natalka Poltavka and The Zaporozhian Cossack Beyond the Danube. Against - could I face the liberal agonising about being "fair" over the murder of a defenceless aged Jewish cripple? My stern moral integrity led me to take the only possible course - abstaining on a decision until the run was over. Unfortunately my friend Vanessa caught me at a weak moment on Wednesday afternoon when she announced she had a spare ticket for the penultimate performance - Reader, I took it.

John Adams has indubitably one of the most original musical imaginations amongst living composers. Works such as Shaker Loops and Different Trains with their insistent rhythms, shimmering intensity, and (in the latter) eerie sliding synchronization with speech patterns, take us into new sonic worlds, and the opera Nixon in China has shown that these techniques can combine with a good story line and a dose of wit to create fascinating theatre. But Klinghoffer is alas overpoweringly awful – because it is the quintessence of turgidity.

Undoubtedly Adams's librettist, Alice Goodman, has this time let him down badly. If not much happens in Nixon it at least gave the opportunity for spectacle. In Klinghoffer even less takes place. Characters spout clunking paragraphs of tedious irrelevancies, in which are embedded images which are I suppose intended for metaphors but leave the listener (if he or she is indeed paying attention) utterly bewildered. It is of course possible to create good, or even great, poetry by using banal language (cf. Billy Collins, Philip Larkin), but Ms Goodman certainly lacks that facility.

Adams has praised Goodman for her presentation of Richard Nixon in their earlier work as "our presidential Everyman: banal, bathetic, sentimental, paranoid" - but if the stage shows us characters who are victims, psychopaths or traumatised bystanders, we as an audience have a right to expect their feelings to be enabled by words which evince some sort of passion, not to compare themselves in extended ariosos to pieces of furniture exposed to the rain, or whatever.

This sort of approach of course immediately baffles any attempt to create drama, climax or resolution. Basically the opera is a botched attempt to apply the amiable gibberish of Virgil Thompson's Four Saints in Three Acts to a pointless act of thuggery conducted in the name of fashionable political principle. I am sure that both Adams and Goodman wet their respective pants and knickers in excitement at the transgressive thrill of setting the words "wherever there are poor people there's a fat Jew", but that don't make great theatre. In this context, it's just another so-what moment.

But I won't enlarge on the dismally simplistic politics of Klinghoffer because they are a long way down the pecking list of complaints. It's perhaps not surprising that the book stimulated so little inspiration in the composer. Adams's trade-mark rhythms here are just an end in themselves, a recognisable trade-mark, rather than a means to expression - a musical method of inducing repetitive strain injury. No wonder one of the orchestra members was clearly visible from the gallery spending much of the opera reading his Kindle.

Significantly the only musical moments I took away with me were a bassoon over the strings recalling the trio from Mozart's Cosě fan tutte and an orchestral desiccation of Wagner's Fire Music just before the end of the first act. The orchestral playing was as flabby and listless as the jejune staging (please, not kids running around with streaming giant flags to show their political dedication! I saw enough of that in Kyiv).

Alan Opie and the company at large (and indeed the ENO budget) were wasted. I was not the only audience member withholding applause at the end - but believe me, it wasn't even worth booing. A projection after the final curtain told us that the perpetrators of the original hijack were all released from prison by 2004 – too early, then, to have given them the fiendish and deserved punishment of being forced to watch this shoddy record of their shoddy deed on an endlessly looping DVD.

David Conway is an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London, and author of the recently published Jewry in Music (Cambridge University Press). He is the founder and director of the international music festival Indian Summer in Levoca (Slovakia). His antediluvian reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be found here.

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ласкаво просимо назад з Києва!

I’ve been looking up Запорожець за Дунаєм and Наталка Полтавка on Wikipedia and YouTube.

Is it possible that your somewhat adverse reaction to these operas is due to use of that sort of musical background to Soviet propaganda films?

And surely Mykola Lysenko is much preferable to Trofim of the same surname?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 14, 2012 03:25 PM

I could have sworn that "Different Trains" was a Steve Reich composition, not John Adams -- Perhaps they both used that title?

Posted by: Douglas2 at April 20, 2012 01:05 AM
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