Right at the end of The Death of Klinghoffer Marilyn Klinghoffer collapses downstage left practically on the spot where – in a recurring motif – Palestinian bodies have been ceremoniously laid to rest. It’s an echo adding depth and poignancy to her big aria – as both the staging and the music capture her emotions. I’m on the edge of my seat until I find myself involuntarily chuckling as the captain begins to crawl unconvincingly around the stage. A reminder of just how infuriating opera can be – overwhelmingly, sometimes mindblowingly, dramatic one moment then and excruciatingly – well – naff the next.
Death of Klinghoffer is not packed with overwhelmingly brilliant moments –but they are there. In fact it’s something of a slow burner – especially the opening which for all its musical beauty is somewhat theatrically bereft.
The first moment of brilliance comes in the much talked about / controversial duet between the lead terrorist and the ship’s captain. For one it’s the first real moment any sense of character really comes to the fore. More importantly though the simplicity of the scene and the haunting beauty of the music belies the seriousness of the situation – something director Tom Morris heightens by leaving the detritus of the hostage scene on stage behind them. Several hard line Americans would have disapproved of my emotions as Mamoud sings:-
‘where Almighty God / in his mercy showed / my decapitated /brother to me /and in his mercy/ allowed me to close / my brothers eyes / and wipe his face’
Then at the end of Act I comes the rousing, angry night chorus. Moments earlier the appearance of a bird (fleetingly) suggests some kind of peace or reconciliation – an understanding between Mamoud and the captain. Such hope though is dramatically blown away as the stage bursts into flames and then plunges into darkness.
Tom Pye (set), Jean Kalman (lighting) and Finn Ross’ (video) designs add real gravitas and beauty to the production. Many of the images remind me of the quiet ferociousness of the Turners we saw in Margate the other week (Turner and the elements – see here).
Given the pain staking detail behind the composition of so many of the images heaven only knows how the clumsy, clunky and (for an opera especially) loud trolleys which represented the captain’s bridge were sanctioned. They were – I grant you – more solid than the wobbly airplane of Nixon in China but no less – well –naff. And If we are being really nit picky the set walls had the occasional jelly moment.
The first opera I ever saw was Verdi La Triviata (opera north cheap seats – see here). In it the femme fatale Violetta takes an age to die (especially when you are desperate for the loo!). O there she goes you think- but no – she’s up and off again – and so this goes on. In Klinghoffer something similar happens – the death that gives the opera its name – effectively takes three go’s! Now this may seem naff but it did provide one of those moments that the opera purists tend to shout about – when all the art forms come together to form something so much more than the sum of its parts.
In the first death scene Klinghoffer has his back to us. Adams driving music leaves us in no doubt what is going to happen but the mis en scene delaying the inevitable. We see the doubt, the anguish (dare one say it a kind of humanity) of the terrorist before he approaches the unaware Klinghoffer – the sheer size of the Coliseum stage meaning the approach can legitimetly seem to take forever. On your seat edge – expecting, fearing the gun shot any moment – the tension builds before the scene switches and the Desert Chorus intervenes. As an audience member you’re left slightly confused, unclear so Morris turns the scene on its head. Now Klinghoffer is downstage and the terrorist upstage. We see the scene in reverse. Adams music – quieter now is no less ferocious, anticipating the moment which everyone in the auditorium knows must come. And this time the pay off happens – the gun shot reverberating around the ornate interior of the Colesium.
But this is opera so it can’t just end there. Like Violetta Klinghoffer can’t just die. He has to have a final aria – sung with power and poignancy by Alan Opie as his body and chair are ceremoniously flung over board. This is powerful stuff – made even more so by the knowledge that Mrs Klinghoffer is blissfully unaware of the terror she is about to face.
And then comes that final moment of drama – when the captain must tell Mrs Klinghoffer what has happened to her husband. Her aria capturing the anger, the grief and the horror of the moment. One woman (Michaela Martens) filling the huge Coliseum stage but what the hell was that Captains crawl all about….