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.