Can you measure the vigor of an art form by its ability to stir up loathing? Last night’s Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer suggested that audiences still respond to opera with passionate disagreements — at least when the opera deals with the Palestinian hijacking of a cruise ship and the murder of one of its passengers. Groups who believe it’s anti-Semitic and want it yanked from the stage mustered a few hundred protesters (surely not thousands, as has been reported), who were penned by police on a traffic island. A few dozen more bought tickets so they could bring their indignation indoors. One was arrested; the rest have now actually seen the opera and can criticize it with authority.
It was a tense night. Audience members shouted and shushed; a few pushed past others to stomp up the aisles. I was waiting for the coordinated chanting that would temporarily shut down the show, but it never came. In the end, the outbursts were scattered and mostly innocuous. Wobbly coloratura at La Scala routinely gets more indignant boos. The most eloquent dissent was printed in the program, a letter from the real Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters asserting that the opera “rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.” I don’t agree, but I’m grateful that the Met presented the argument so that audiences could make up their minds.
Through all this, David Robertson, the battle-hardened conductor who made his Met debut in 1996 on the night a tenor died onstage, led a performance of subtle splendors. The orchestra and chorus were unflappably great, and the whole cast kept its cool. It’s never easy to walk into a spotlight and sing really loud into a crowd of 4,000 people. Imagine what it was like for the excellent quartet of Sean Panikkar, Aubrey Allicock, Ryan Speedo Green, and Jesse Kovarsky to perform the role of villains for an audience hopped up on indignation — and then march up the threatening aisle to the back of the house. Green sang such a convincingly fierce and unhinged Rambo that I feared for his curtain call. (Needless to say: He got the ovations he had earned.)
I have already written at length about the opera’s moral, political, and musical complexities. The production by Tom Morris that finally showed up at the Met (you can see a little of it here) intensified its strengths without doing much to mitigate its flaws. He enclosed the stage in tall panels that, thanks to the miracle of projections, morph into concrete walls, barren Judean hills, and the open sea, all equally merciless forms of isolation. But there is a lot of slow-moving music to fill with imagery, so we get choruses of shrouded Palestinians raising fists in anger and Jews planting trees.
Adams has written a score of many beauties soldered to a questionable premise and a clumsy libretto by Alice Goodman. I find many passages thrilling: the terrorist Rambo’s electronic blurp-spattered ravings, the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” swelling tragically from mournful memories to destructive vows of vengeance, the aria that Klinghoffer sings after his death. This is the kind of music that earned Adams’s opera its berth at the Met, that makes it worth arguing over, that justifies both outrage and passionate defense. If it lacked those marvels, we wouldn’t be discussing it at all.
And yet music alone doesn’t make an opera. Goodman has concocted an irritating stew of historical victims, fictionalized terrorists, and tendentious musings. At the drama’s center, she has placed neither passengers nor perpetrators but the ship’s Italian captain, a self-absorbed narrator who professes understanding for all sides and speaks in florid abstractions, never using four syllables when 19 will do. Paulo Szot worked hard to give him a personality but managed only to make him an elegantly orotund version of the high-minded blowhard that Goodman wrote and Adams granted far too much time onstage.
Following the story requires decoding metaphors on the fly. Why is that gull landing on the railing? What does the image of wrecked furniture with missing bits of malachite suggest? The libretto should come with its own workbook and discussion questions. Actually, Adams should probably jettison it completely. The ideal version of this opera is in wordless concert form, with the cast dressed in tuxes and gowns and singing la la la.
Instead, Adams has allowed the listing drama to lead him off course. Scenes that keep the adrenaline coursing freely are followed by head-scratching detours. Do terrifying moments in a horror film ever give you the urge to press pause and wander off to check your email? Adams seems to have had the same impulse, defusing brutal instants with flabby non-sequiturs. One particularly strange moment comes immediately after Klinghoffer’s murder, when a chorus of Jewish women drifts onstage like extras in a Zionist propaganda film from the 1960s, tossing seed and promising to make the dead land flourish.
This is the moment of Morris’s worst misjudgment: He has Klinghoffer get killed twice. First, we see him from behind, silhouetted in the setting sun, his murder chronicled by the orchestra in the traditional way (big crescendo, sudden bang). Later, we see the same scene repeated in gratuitous, full-frontal close-up. This means that, rather than sing his posthumous aria from the depths of the ocean where he has been dumped, Klinghoffer must rise out of his wheelchair and stand there on the deck as if he were just feeling a bit queasy from the swells. Alan Opie sings it warmly, and the orchestra swaddles him with strings. But what should be the emotional center of the opera comes as an anticlimax.
Instead, it’s Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer who slings the whole evening over her shoulder and walks away with it at the end. Adams gives her the last word, the searing lament of a new widow for whom pain is already an old acquaintance. With a voice that is powerful, tempered, and focused, Martens concentrates all the evening’s tensions into those final minutes, a statement of quiet, helpless rage: “I wanted to die.” But she can’t, not yet.
The Death of Klinghoffer is at the Metropolitan Opera through November 15.