The opera concerns the hijacking of an Italian cruise liner by four terrorists, the murder of an elderly passenger who happened to be an American Jew, and the eventual resolution of the crisis. The librettist is Alice Goodman, who also wrote Adams's Nixon in China that made such a stir in Edinburgh in 1988. She is both Jewish and a Christian. She is also a poet of great distinction, able to use words hauntingly and fragrantly.
But somehow or other, Adams and Goodman decided to create a sort of non-opera. If opera is about dialogue, emotional exchange, character and suspense, then The Death of Klinghoffer is a series of Aeschylean choruses and undramatic soliloquies. Where you would expect a tussle between the captain of the hijacked ship and the chief attacker, you get reflective speeches or passages of narrative. So seldom does anyone talk to anyone else that the affectionate exchange of Klinghoffer with his wife registered as astonishingly moving.
It was an experiment, and it didn't come off. The long choruses were sometimes beautiful; the opening melismatic song of dispossessed Palestinian women, the idyllic final chorus greeting the sunrise over a scene of freedom, showed all the cleverness of Adams's musical imagination. But more often than not, you got the impression that Goodman had written an extended text, indulging her verbal facility, and Adams had gone ahead and set every word.
Anthony Neilson, in his production for Scottish Opera, had tried all the tricks in the book to bring the thing to life. The hijacking began in the audience; there was a ship's gangway leading from stage to auditorium. A long solo was illustrated with a home video of the Klinghoffers' golden wedding party, amusing but incompetent. There was even attempt to revive the comedy of Nixon in the shape of a gross Austrian woman who passed the hijacking in her cabin gorging herself on chocolate, and a witty vignette of a dancing girl in tights and feathers.
But it didn't add up. It ought to have seemed frighteningly contemporary, after recent events in London. But it took itself too seriously, and in the end seemed like no opera at all, more like a tediously moralising oratorio.
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