The Death of Klinghoffer, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Grief, rage - and choruses without parallel too

Though still a political hot potato, Adams's 1991 opera has become strangely diminished in its specifics. To eyes glutted on the bloody spectacle of 9/11, Bali, Beslan, and Madrid - to say nothing of the Israeli buses and pizza parlours, the Palestinian refugee camps, and the shelled cities of Iraq - the 1984 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise liner and subsequent murder of the wheelchair-bound American tourist Leon Klinghoffer is small beans. You can hardly blame Neilson for trying to make it more "real" by planting terrorists and victims in the stalls and circle and piping sea-sounds into the foyer and ladies' loos. (In fact, these devices backfired by lending our sense of our own inviolability to those on stage.) But the continuing impact of Adams's score and Alice Goodman's libretto has little to do with the brutal balletics of the hijacking. The incident is a conduit for far more frightening and subtle meditations on grief and rage: be it the grief and rage of a widow, or the grief and rage of two dispossessed and brutalised peoples fighting over land that each believes to be theirs alone. The opening choruses for the exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews - an intoxicating blend of the devotional and the secular - are without parallel in contemporary art music, blossoming into violent, sensual, scarlet declamations from a cool, lyrical wash of orchestral grays and blues.

Realising the elusive balance between oratorio and opera and symbolism and naturalism in Klinghoffer is undeniably hard. Sneering at grief-tourism and consumer-culture by advertising memorial t-shirts is all too easy, and Neilson's disdainful home-movie close-ups of wasted food at a Klinghoffer family celebration - implicitly criticising their decadence - were, to my mind, misplaced in the "Aria of the Falling Body". Yet much as I balked at some of Neilson's ideas and felt his blurring of the lines between audience and actors to be futile here - fans of Graham Vick's productions will know how powerful this can be in the right setting - his is nonetheless a well-executed production.

Against the spare geometrics of Miriam Buether's abstracted deck and quayside, the movements of the cast are near faultless, with Kamel Boutros reprising his compellingly nuanced portrait of Mamoud, Darren Abrahams a twitchy Molqi, and D'Arcy Bleiker a brutish Rambo. Andrew Schroeder's morally flaccid Captain, Elizabeth Sikora's pettish Swiss Grandmother, Claire Booth's blithely self-centred British Dancing Girl, Susan Gorton's gluttonous, anti-Semitic Austrian Woman - pornographically smeared with duty free chocolate - and Jonathan Summers's irascible Leon Klinghoffer are all commanding interpretations, while Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a devastating Marilyn Klinghoffer. From unnamed chorus member to small role to lead, each member of the cast knows what they are feeling and expresses it powerfully in their body language.

Musically, The Death of Klinghoffer is less uniformly successful. Though Oriol Rosés captures the vulnerability of Omar, he is punching above his weight vocally. I feel like a heel too for criticising Scottish Opera's chorus when their livelihoods are on the line, but the virtuousic demands of Adams's melismatic and staccato choruses are such that only the young and perfectly blended voices of the Glyndebourne Chorus would withstand close amplification while singing them. The amplification here is anyway oddly coarse, albeit skillfully mixed during the improvised spoken dialogue, and the playing of the orchestra under Edward Gardner is too frequently obscured. Orchestrally, this is an expressive and technical triumph, from the vertiginous muezzin wail of the oboe to the rich Wagnerian waterworld of the lower strings. Much as I love this disturbing score, I had forgotten how rich its colours are. Strange that when people think of Adams all they hear is the chink-chink-chink of brisk staccato and not the weightless azure and emerald of the Gymnopédie.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

Last performance tomorrow, 0131 473 2000

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