Tom Morris's ENO production of The Death of Klinghoffer reveals that the anxiety around John Adams's second opera has lost no heat in the 21 years since its premiere. The (non) performance history is instructive, a series of high-profile scheduled productions coming to nothing in the face of intractably polarised reactions to its subject matter and form. For Klinghoffer is a Passion, its Christ-figure an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish-American tourist who was murdered in the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by four young Palestinians jived up on adrenalin and jihad.
In Morris's staging, the point of departure is an imagined 2004 press conference where survivors of the hijacking narrate their stories. The backdrop is the Wall of Separation (designs by Tom Pye), on which a potted history of the Israel-Palestine conflict is projected, from the declaration of independence to the second intifada. ENO's chorus are both Jews and Muslims, changing identity with skull cap or veil. Olive trees are planted, ghettos formed, mothers shot, children buried – this is a Holy Land no tourist wants to see. Meanwhile, Adams's melismatic choruses unfurl, their blue-gold orchestral accompaniments meticulously balanced by conductor Baldur Brönnimann.
Extravagant in its sensuality, Alice Goodman's libretto opens with the stories of two exiled peoples and concludes with the desperate howl of one widow. What comes between is problematic: the prolix philosophising of the Captain (Christopher Magiera), the hesitant confessions of Mahmoud (Richard Burkhard), the volatility of Molqi and Rambo (Edwin Vega and Sidney Outlaw), and Omar's devotional, delusional soliloquy, translated into dance by Jesse Kovarsky and sung by Clare Presland.
Is the opera anti-Semitic? No. But many of its characters are. The Swiss Grandmother (Lucy Schaufer) admits to feeling relief that "we are not Jews!". The British dancing girl's giggling testimony (Kate Miller-Heidke) highlights her and our ignorance of history, while the Austrian woman (Kathryn Harries) is a sprechstimme parody of those who averted their eyes during the Anschluss. Of the Western tourists, only Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer emerge with humour and tenderness – the first (Alan Opie) heartbreakingly eloquent in the "Aria of the Falling Body", the second (Michaela Martens) incensed by the Captain's equivocations, a good wife to the end.
Musically, ENO does justice to one of Adams's most alluring and difficult scores. Dramatically, I sensed a peculiar tension between the dreamlike material and Morris's desire to document its continuing relevance. The first performance was met with respectful applause, though this felt intrusive after the narrowing down of decades of war into one woman's private grief. Despite last week's excitable news reports, just one protester stood outside the Coliseum, holding up a placard with a message of irreproachable simplicity: "Disabled man murdered by terrorists. Murdered for being Jewish. Enjoy your evening at the ENO".
Covent Garden unleashed a loud whoop of disgust at Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's Salzburg Festival production of Dvorák's Rusalka. If curtain calls are any measure, drawing parallels between the Warsaw uprising of 1943, the Compton riots of 1992 and the Palestinian National Authority's reclaiming of Bethlehem in 2005, as Morris does in Act I of Klinghoffer, is less offensive than the sight of a pantomime cat raping a mermaid. Revived by Samantha Seymour, this Rusalka emphasises violence over enchantment. A video of jellyfish accompanies the "Song to the Moon", casting a secretive, delirious beauty over set designer Barbara Ehnes's tawdry brothel. Act II is brutal, Act III disturbing. This is Rusalka the Zombie, half-disembowelled, undead, her final duet with the Prince a convulsion of joyless kisses and bleeding lips.
Under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Dvorák's nocturnal soundworld of gauzy violins, moon-bright woodwind and sighing horns prevails, though the nagging, finger-wagging cello figure warns you that it's all going to end badly. The orchestra's string sound is different under this conductor, plusher and darker. Individual vocal performances are strong: Petra Lang's proud Foreign Princess, Camilla Nylund's blanched, distracted Rusalka and Bryan Hymel's lustrous, gleaming Prince foremost among them.
Stephen Medcalf's production of Aida enters Ancient Egypt through the eyes of a Victorian traveller, and Isabella Bywater's designs cover the Royal Albert Hall with sun-bleached ruins, extending the horizon upwards. The spectacle is impressive, the central characters, in one of three casts, – Aida (Indra Thomas), Radames (Marc Heller), Amneris (Tiziano Carraro) and Amonasro (David Kempster) – boldly drawn if low on erotic charge. Musically, the highlight is off-stage, as "O tu che sei d'Osiride" wafts down from the gallery. The top ticket price is exactly three times that for Martin Lloyd-Evans's tart, smart Second World War production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, designed by Dick Bird, conducted by Stephen Barlow, played with vivacity by an excellent student orchestra, and sung by the freshest and loveliest young voices. Here the quartet of lovers (Sky Ingram, Kathryn McAdam, Stuart Laing and Ashley Riches) are the focal point of Britten's Shakespearean divertissement, their love of the text infectious, their innocence a joy.
'The Death of Klinghoffer' (0871 911 0200) to 9 Mar; 'Rusalka' (020- 7304 4000) to 14 Mar; 'Aida' (020-7838 3100) to 11 Mar; 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (020-7638 8891) to 6 Mar
Kirill Karabits, Frank Braley and the Bournemouth SO play the Concerto for Piano and Winds by Stravinsky, Strauss's Wind Serenade and Beethoven's Fifth at the Lighthouse, Poole (Wed). It's hot towels and heartbreak at the Hackney Empire as English Touring Opera hits the road with The Barber of Seville (Thu, Sat), and Eugene Onegin (Fri).Reuse content