Publicado en Mundoclasico.com (ISSN 1886-0605) el 09/09/2005

When the Director Fights Against the Opera, No One Wins

Por Gregory W. Bloch
Edinburgh , 29/08/2005. Edinburgh Festival Theatre. John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer. Anthony Nielson, director. Miriam Buether, designer. Chahine Yavroyan, lighting. Ian Gibson, sound. Andrew Schroeder (Captain), Toby Stafford-Allen (First Officer), Elizabeth Sikora (Swiss Grandmother), Darren Abrahams (Molqi), Kamel Boutros (Mamoud), Susan Gorton (Austrian Woman), Jonathan Summers (Leon Klinghoffer), Oriol Rosés (Omar), D'Arcy Bleiker ("Rambo"), Claire Booth (British Dancing Girl), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Marilyn Klinghoffer). Chorus of Scottish Opera. Orchestra of Scottish Opera. Edward Gardner, conductor

Since its premiere in 1991, John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer has been surrounded by controversy. As readers will probably already know given the mountain of critical writing that has accumulated over the years, the opera takes as its subject the hijacking of the Mediterranean cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1982, ending with the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Unfortunately, much of that mountain of criticism has been surprisingly uninformed and unintelligent, focusing on illusory accusations of anti-Semitism or simplistic moral evaluations, and failing to come to terms with the multi-faceted and perplexing opera that Adams (with librettist Alice Goodman, and original director Peter Sellars) actually created.

I might have hoped that this Edinburgh production, the first fully-staged production in the UK, would have provided an opportunity to reassess the work, now that the hysteria surrounding its first production is a distant memory, even while Arab terrorism has become an even greater issue. Unfortunately, this production will not offer such an opportunity. From the beginning of the opera to the end, the director Anthony Nielson proves to be so out of tune with the aims of the composer and librettist, so deaf and blind to the content and structure of the work he is directing, that audience members unfamiliar with the work were almost certain to conclude that the opera is a confused mess. This is a pity. The fact that, even in the midst of this disastrous production, there still remained some very moving moments proves, I think, the strength of the opera John Adams wrote, as well as the talent of a few of the performers involved.

The Death of Klinghoffer, as its creators wrote it, is unambiguously, emphatically not a simple re-enactment of the events on that ship in 1982. Rather, the work stages a multi-layered reflection on those events, and one of its most important themes is the way in which traumatic events get remembered, retold, and re-imagined. Thus moments of "normal" dramaturgy  -that is, moments in which dialogue or events are simply re-enacted- occur only occasionally. The opera continually shifts "modes", sometime presenting characters relating their memories of the events, sometime presenting even more distanced reflection and interpretation. At one key dramatic moment (when the captain urges calm immediately after the terrorists appear) the frame moves back even further: rather than hear the Captain or even a memory of the Captain, we hear only the First Officer, who says, "I wasn't there myself, but I can well imagine what he said..." followed by his imagined version of what the speech might have been. The shifts in tone sometimes occur abruptly, sometime so subtly that you hardly notice until after they have already happened. Finally there are the long, static , poetic choruses, during which every pretence of relating to drama on a literal level is abandoned.

There is, however, a competing element in the creators' concept of the opera: all this distance and abstraction coexists with an almost slavish faithfulness to the historical record, often drawing events and ideas directly from newspaper records and the written accounts of survivors (including, most importantly, the memoirs of the captain of the ship). Clearly this strategy poses serious problems for the stage director -how does one put on stage a memory of a supposition? And how does one respect the "accuracy" of the libretto without feeling unnecessarily constrained? The original production by Peter Sellars did not find the best possible solution for these problems, portraying the multiple perspectives by using multiple performers for individual roles, and employing aggressively abstract choreography. Many audiences found this approach so alienating that they ceased to connect with the human characters at all. The appalling film version from 2002, by director Penny Woolcock, failed for the opposite reason, filling every moment with absurdly literal images.

A director looking for a more promising way to stage this work would do well to start with the seven long oratorio-like choruses. In interviews and essays, the opera's creators have stressed how central the chorus is in Klinghoffer. John Adam has repeatedly explained that his principal model for the kind of work he wanted to write were J.S. Bach's Passions. The composer has also said that he thinks of the choruses as structural pillars, supporting the drama at the beginning, middle, and end of each act. This is true both despite and because of the fact that Goodman's text for these choruses is unrelentingly abstract, relating to the events of the drama only on the most poetic, imagistic level. (In Edinburgh, the importance of the choruses is explicitly pointed out in the program note by Andrew Clements.)

And so we can begin to judge the extent to which director Anthony Nielson completely lacked sympathy with the creators' conception of the opera by observing that his response to these seven difficult but crucial chorus was simply to excise three of them in their entirety. The dialogue and arias are thus stripped of their distancing frame, leaving the audience expecting a more straightforward retelling of the event, and more prone to disappointment and confusion.

Cutting the choruses was a major blunder, but it is also symptomatic of deeper problems. A sensitive director would respond to the various shifts in tone and perspective, communicating an awareness of the difference between a re-enacted speech and a recollected speech. Nielson, in general, simply pretends the distinction does not exist, trying his best to make a straightforward narrative opera where none exists. The goal, I suppose, was to erase some of the emotional distance written into the opera, but, in my opinion, all he accomplished was to turn a potentially successful mixed-genre work into a traditional opera that fails.

It is possible that the decision to cut the choruses was in part a practical decision. The Scottish Opera has recently suffered widely-publicized funding cuts, perhaps explaining why the long, complex choruses that weren't cut were performed by an almost madrigal-sized ensemble of twenty-four voices. The powerful "Night Chorus" which closes Act 1, in which the chorus divides into two antiphonal ensembles, was nearly unrecognisable.

And yet, even with reduced resources, a more sympathetic director would have created a more coherent production. A few other examples, from the many that could be provided: Leon Klinghoffer's murder occurs, heartbreakingly, offstage in the middle of his wife Marilyn's long soliloquy of seemingly idle chatter. Her aria is slowly overtaken a gradual violent swell in the orchestra, leading to a thunderous climax and a fortissimo unison that cuts like a knife. Tentatively, her aria resumes, but the sense that a catastrophe has occurred is visceral. The shooting thus takes place only in the orchestra's music -like so much of the drama, it is abstractly narrated rather than re-enacted. Nielson, unable to hear how potentially powerful such a poetic impression could be, apparently decided that Adams simply forgot to write in the actual gunshots. And so, after the gut-wrenching orchestral climax, after the music has died down again into ominous serenity, we hear three gunshots from offstage. The preceding sublime orchestral writing was rendered superfluous, and the entire scene was diminished.

The confusion regarding the basic narrative strategies of the opera was visible even during what was, without a doubt, the most dramatically effective moment of the production, when the terrorists first reveal themselves. Nielson had the hijackers appear in the auditorium, yelling at the audience and pulling cast members, who had been secretly planted among us, seemingly at random out of their seats at gunpoint. As theatre, this was genuinely terrifying. The quality of the acting, and the sheer proficiency with which the performers were moved around the space of the auditorium, proved beyond doubt that Nielson was indeed both competent and talented, when staging the kind of straightforward, conventionally dramatic scenes that Klinghoffer so often fails to provide. My only observation (not exactly a complaint with respect to this scene) is that the music in this moment was rendered inaudible, drowned out by gunshots, the terrorists shouting unscripted commands, and the passengers screaming. Those in the audience who had never encountered Klinghoffer before would never has guessed that this inaudible music, in a distanced and refined way, communicates many of the same emotions that the screaming and shooting did: the fear, the confusion, the sensory overload. I insist, however: Nielson here crafted a virtuosic theatrical spectacle, but even here I couldn't shake the feeling that he wished he were directing a different opera altogether.

I can make no such apology at all for the utterly reprehensible decision to cast Spanish countertenor Oriol Rosés in the role of the terrorist Omar. In historical fact, none of the Achille Lauro hijackers were older than twenty-one, and so the role of Omar was written as a "trousers role," for a female mezzo-soprano. Omar thus plays off the tradition of Cherubino and Octavian, although, due to his sexual frustration and misplaced idealism, he can be seen most directly as a grotesque parody of the Komponist from Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. Experienced opera audiences are used to trousers roles and how to interpret them -a stage director committed to a certain kind of overly-literal realism is not. And so we were given a doughy, middle-aged, balding man in the role of the frustrated teenager, simply (we assume) to avoid the confusion that could have resulted from cross-gender casting. This might have been a defensible decision (although I doubt it), if only Rosés had been capable of singing Omar's aria with anything approaching competence. He was not. The high notes were well beyond his range, he swooped, his pitch was inaccurate, and his English diction was sloppy. More than anything, he simply lacked the vocal power to sing the aria's fortissimo climax. This performance should never have been allowed on any stage, and the fact that the disaster occurred because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the work is little consolation.

As I suggested above, the production was not entirely a disaster. The work’s two largest roles, the Captain and the terrorist Mamoud, were both sung excellently, by the American Andrew Schroeder and the Egyptian-born Kamel Boutros, respectively. Also outstanding was the performance of Jonathan Summers in the role of Leon Klinghoffer. He managed to communicate vocally the character's old age and infirmity, while simultaneously projecting his strength and dignity. I feel ambivalent about the performance of Catherine Wyn-Rogers in the role of Marilyn Klinghoffer, who, while technically flawless and a good actress, seemed a bit too restrained vocally, lacking the intensity and willingness to take vocal risks that could have given the role more emotional weight.

Many of smaller roles, too, were well-performed. In particular Claire Booth as the British Dancing Girl and Susan Gorton as the Austrian Woman both were impressive vocally, despite being directed to turn their characters in broad satires. Besides Rosés, the only other weak link in the cast was Darren Abrahams as the terrorist leader Molqi: at least on the night I heard him, he simply did not have the spinto high notes that role requires.

The Orchestra of the Scottish Opera, conducted by Edward Gardner, was impressive. Gardner clearly had thought carefully about how to make Adams's carefully constructed crescendos and intricate textures work, and the orchestra was up to the task. Indeed, with all the talent on display in the production, the fact the whole evening was such a confused affair can only make one depressed at the thought of what might have been. For now, the staging of the Death of Klinghoffer that respects and responds to its complexities and its uniqueness remains to be produced.