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Opera In The Age of the Terrorist

New York
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Juilliard School
01/31/2009 -  
The Death of Klinghoffer: Music by John Adams, libretto by Alice Goodman

Brian Leerhuber (The Captain), Benjamin Bloomfield (The First Officer), Rebecca Jo Loeb (Swiss Grandmother), Javier Abreu (Molqi), Kelly Markgraf (Mmaoud), Carin Gilfry (Austrian Woman), Nicholas Pallesen (Leon Klinghoffer), Paul La Rosa (“Rambo”), Jennifer Zetlan (British Dancing Girl), Renée Lenore Tatum (Omar), Jennifer Hines (Marilyn Klinghoffer)
Juilliard Opera Center, Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell (Chorus Master), The Juilliard Orchestra, Jeffrey Milarsky (Assistant Conductor), John Adams (Conductor)
Laine Guerner (Stage Manager), Emily Stork (Lighting Designer), Brian Mohr (Sound Design), Christopher Mossey (Project Producer)

John Adams (© Margaretta Mitchell)

With the death of Santa, the Easter bunny and bearded heavenly fathers, it is time for the world to kill the notion that people are good or evil. Good deeds, yes; evil deeds, of course. But saints and demons are for fairy tales, not our all too complex reality.

John Adams and Alice Goodman attempted to make us see this when writing a The Death of Klinghoffer, but with little political success. It is still “our” 9/11, “their” Gaza, “our” London Underground bombing, “their” Afghan village massacres.

But neither Adams nor Goodman are polemical artists. That would be left for this week’s next political theatre-piece, The Cradle Will Rock. In the meantime, Juilliard – under the firm steady baton of the composer himself – gave us a minimally staged but magnificently sung version of Klinghoffer, to finish their week of California music.

One has no doubt that the original deed – the hijacking of a pleasure ship, and the killing of a wheelchair-bound vacationer – was an evil act. But from the very beginning, librettist Goodman makes apparent that pure condemnation is as erroneous as pure evil itself.

Why else would the prologue pair two choruses, of exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews. (the second sounding vaguely like the chorus of exiled Jews in Verdi’s Nabucco)? Yet this is just one pairing of opposites here. Night and Day, Desert and Ocean. In fact, the one chorus standing on its own is that of Hagar, the complex story claimed by both Muslims and Jews.

Yet Ms. Goodman has more poetic paradoxes here. Not a sympathy, but an understanding of the terrorists, who speak of “the day I die, when I and my enemy sit peacefully.” She depicts one vicious terrorist rebuking Klinghoffer himself, yet we feel almost a sympathy for his directness, while Mr. Klinghoffer speaks of forgetting to wear a hat. A lack of communication of the most fatal kind.

Mr. Adams, at that time a full-blown “minimalist” could have substituted the orchestral accompaniment of Nixon In China, save for a few Arabic phrases, and some highly emotional crescendos. But if nothing stands out, like the aria of poetry in Doctor Atomic, his music sets the scene for questions and brutality and then even more questions.

One would have liked to see a facsimile of Peter Sellars’ original staging, with its video, with the dance as Klinghoffer is killed, with the symbolic movements. Instead, we had minimal staging with some excellent acting. The four terrorists did look ragged and unsure and puzzled at their own act. The Captain was upright and brave. The Klinghoffers could have been the bourgeois Jewish couple found at any concert in New York. The lighting was subtle, but changed with each scene. The all important chorus stood at the back of the orchestra, but the Collegiate Chorale certainly has no problems sounding clear and resonant for their important interludes.

Not enough can be said for the Juilliard Orchestra. No massive forces are needed, but the subtle string playing, the occasional loud brass, and the single percussionist (Molly Yeh) who managed many instruments made not a mistake. It would be fatuous to doubt the interpretation, for this was Mr. Adams himself at the helm.

Whatever could be considered an aria was in the second act, and the cast of professionals and students outdid themselves. Ms. Goodman has created an androgynous terrorist played by mezzo Renée Lenore Tatum, poignantly pouring forth his heartbreak “If I do not walk in Paradise.” And while Klinghoffer hardly has the humor of Nixon, the down-to-earth ruminations of “British dancer” Jennifer Zetlan are like Hamlet’s gravedigger.

The Klinghoffers themselves are, for New Yorkers, the neighbors next door. But Nicholas Pallesen in his two arias reached out with the simplest pleas in a beautiful rich baritone. His wife, played by Jennifer Hines, was wretchedly moving as she shows her own hatred of the heroic captain for “embracing” the terrorists, for having “the oil of Palestine” on his sleeves.

Perhaps Brian Leerhuber as the Captain has the most difficult role of all, since the Captain is stolid, hides his emotions, plays the negotiator and the consoler. He is all too human, and thus, for the opera, perhaps least appreciated. Yet Mr. Leerhuber has a fine voice, and his long explanations and dialogues were a hint of humanity in a madhouse situation.

For yes, this ship is rather mad, as I guess we all are. Not mad, though, is Mr. Adams, who understands so well musical theatre. As for Ms. Goodman, listening to her words and enlightenments here show how much she was missed in Doctor Atomic. But, though it might be this New Yorker’s own chutzpah, in Klinghoffer as well as Nixon, she has proved to be, along with Boito and Da Ponte one of opera’s truly splendid librettists.

Harry Rolnick



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