Progress, at last

The classical music community has taken welcome risks with The Death of Klinghoffer and the return o

The Death of Klinghoffer, English National Opera/Britten Sinfonia & Thomas Ades, Queen Elizabeth Hall

One week and two long overdue cultural exchanges. Despite numbering Glyndebourne among its original co-commissioners, John Adams's controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer has had to wait until now for a fully-staged English debut. Twenty-one years after it premiered in Brussels the work has come of age in sophisticated, if sober, fashion at English National Opera.

Although Adams himself increasingly rejects the term "docu-opera", it's a designation that speaks clearly to the genre the composer has pioneered in works such as Nixon in China and most recently Dr Atomic. The Death of Klinghoffer takes the 1985 hijacking of Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and subsequent murder of disabled American passenger Leon Klinghoffer as its starting point.

From this provocative seed, Adams and librettist Alice Goodman have created a meditative, at times wilfully non-dramatic, piece of music-drama that wanders among the events (and more broadly among the origins of Arab-Israeli conflict) with philosophical detachment - a form closer to a Bach Passion than a conventional opera. Whether or not the work belongs on a stage is a vexed question, and one ENO's new production by Tom Morris leaves little closer to resolution.

Set apart from the brightly-coloured, fussy action of the hijacking itself are choruses of commentary - the musical and dramatic heart of the work. We open with the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians - generations of dusty alienation and violence played out against an unchanging landscape projection.

But gradually mourners become militants, and as singers begin to strip off their travelling clothes we see them transformed into the Chorus of Jews. It all makes for a beautiful tableau, but this easy visual felicity can't help but feel glib when we consider its symbolic implications. Goodman has rejected notions of her libretto as "even-handed", resisting the essentialising of peoples and nations, but Morris's gesture feels dangerously at odds with this.

Adams's score is a thing of beauty (and is rendered here with absolute clarity by Baldur Bronnimann), its language a lyrical minimalism that relaxes the nullifying repetitions of Philip Glass into a more flexible, developmental form. So expressive are its melodies and delicate harmonic contortions that one wonders if Morris's frequent recourse to contemporary dance is really necessary - supplementing a dramatic lack that doesn't exist.

While Alan Opie''s Klinghoffer and Michaela Martens as his wife (on the shoulders of whose closing aria so much rests) both excel, and cameos from Clare Presland as the Palestinian Woman and Lucy Schaufer's Swiss Grandmother are the jewels of the supporting cast, this opera belongs to its chorus. ENO's ensemble (and particular the upper voices) make a persuasive case for the work and its issues, but while I was by turns provoked by the naturalistic action and delighted by the music, Morris's production never once managed to move me. His Klinghoffer is a fascinating history lesson, a visual response to Adams's score that never quite succeeds in turning music into opera, or ideology into drama.

 

Across the Atlantic another musical milestone was reached recently as the Britten Sinfonia - surely the UK's most consistently dynamic chamber ensemble - finally made their American debut, a mere 20 years after their founding. Returning in triumph to the Southbank centre this week with their touring programme, curated and directed by Thomas Ades, they reminded us of the many reasons we have to be proud of this extraordinary group.

Often unconventional but never gimmicky, the Britten Sinfonia's programming is driven by their musical collaborations. Working here with Ades, the ensemble presented a programme - "Concentric Paths" - that rippled outwards from the composer's own music in chains of dialogue and influence, extending back to the baroque works of Couperin that Ades explores in his series of chamber homages, and also incorporating works by Ravel and Stravinsky.

While Stravinsky's Suites Nos 1 and 2 for Small Orchestra saw the orchestra's tonal intensity and attack at its most unbounded, the evening reached a natural climax in Ades's Violin Concerto. Finnish Soloist Pekka Kuusisto is a natural fit for the work's daring gestures that risk the small, the fragile, as much as the ferocious. His supreme technique (so unobtrusive as to shame the showier likes of Kavakos, Bell or Vengerov) came into its own in the second movement, where thwarted yearnings for melody start with such brutality, but ultimately unclench into a desperately hopeful cantilena, spun over woodwind and lower strings.

Change and progress in the world of classical music are still treated as less than synonymous - cause for suspicion and resistance among organisations as much as audiences. This week has seen two significant advances, two risk-taking musical events that should and deserve to be celebrated, both here and in America.

 

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism