Compelling “Klinghoffer” and amusing Donizetti in St. Louis
The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s 2004 production of John Adams’s Nixon in China helped to propel the opera towards a belated Metropolitan Opera premiere. This season the enterprising company takes up the cause of the second and final “CNN opera” by Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, The Death of Klinghoffer, a work whose depiction of a real-life event—the murder by Palestinian terrorists of a wheelchair-bound Jewish cruise-ship passenger from New Jersey—landed it in no end of trouble.
Facing charges that it took too sympathetic a stance toward terrorism, Klinghoffer languished in the United States after its first staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991 in a co-production with Brussels’ Théâtre de la Monnaie, which gave the world premiere earlier that year. A scene showing the reaction of fictitious neighbors of the Klinghoffers, which some thought conveyed negative Jewish stereotypes, was soon deleted by Adams, but its absence did not materially improve the opera’s fortunes. Saint Louis’s is the first full American staging since the Brooklyn premiere, although BAM also presented a staged concert version in 2003 and the Juilliard School gave one in 2009.
The strength of James Robinson’s simple yet probing production is that it reveals Klinghoffer to be no work of advocacy. After all, if the opera did have a subtext promoting the cause of the Palestinians, it would be absurd to make so thoroughly repugnant an act by them the focal point of the action.
Adams and Goodman did, of course, choose an incendiary subject, but the opera does not offer solutions. Rather, in laying out the situation as best it can, its only commentary is one of deep-seated pessimism.
Klinghoffer, in which choruses are so important, stakes a claim for evenhandedness at the outset by opening with successive choruses of refugees—first Palestinians, then Israelis. Robinson tellingly builds on this dualism by having, for example, a wall of suitcases built between groups of Palestinians and Israelis during the Night Chorus that ends Act 1.
The problem with Klinghoffer is an aesthetic one. Goodman’s libretto, while striking home in broad outlines, is full of difficult-to-parse philosophical language, both in the choruses (where you might expect it) and in the scenes for soloists. This is mirrored by Adams’s music, which generally moves slowly and reflectively in its post-Minimalist way and sometimes turns listless.
To his credit, just when you think he has gone on too long in that vein, Adams sometimes shifts to something lively, as when the British Dancing Girl bursts on the scene in Act 2. Yet even she doesn’t supply real action. One of the advantages of Penny Woolcock’s much-praised 2003 film version is that it helps fill that void. Here, the murder happens offstage.
Black-and-white video projections by Greg Emetaz often show a hostile sea and sky above. Allen Moyer’s effective set consists of black panels depicting sections of the hull of the Achille Lauro lined by portholes and rivets. James Schuette’s costumes suggest little in the way of shipboard luxury.
Saint Louis’s cast is excellent, although voices are amplified, apparently in accordance with the composer’s wishes. As the ship’s Captain, Christopher Magiera compellingly articulates the voice of reason, but he doesn’t stand a chance against the fanaticism consuming the terrorist Mamoud, powerfully expressed by Aubrey Allicock. Lucy Schaufer sings vividly in multiple cameos.
As Klinghoffer, Brian Mulligan projects considerable strength, especially in his post-murder monologue. Nancy Maultsby is shattering in conveying Marilyn Klinghoffer’s reaction to incomprehensible events.
Conducting a new, reduced orchestration prepared by the composer for the occasion, Michael Christie, along with members of the Saint Louis Symphony, handsomely captures the repetitions and shifting colors of Adams’ score. The Opera Theatre’s chorus also makes a fine contribution. This is an opera I suspect we will be hearing more from, and Saint Louis has helped pave the way.
The Daughter of the Regiment has lost favor in recent decades on the list of Donizetti’s most popular operas. The tin-soldier militarism of Act 1 quickly becomes a bore, a circumstance that Seán Curran’s staging here does little to ameliorate. Indeed, for most of the act creative wit is in short supply. James Schuette’s set, which depicts an Alpine scene, and his costumes, which dress the soldiers in the brightest of chichéd reds, are just too cute. And the English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin has seen its better days.
But Act 2 turns out to be another story, starting with an amusing ballet sequence in which the tomboy Marie finds herself hilariously out of sync with her fellow dancers. Ballet lessons are part of the plan of her supposed aunt (really her mother) to indoctrinate the girl to the finer things of life after her formative years squandered amidst soldiers, all with the goal of qualifying her to marry the son of the Duchess of Crackentorp.
Assuming the latter role, normally just a speaking one, was Sylvia McNair, whose stellar career as a soprano might be said to have been hatched by an appearance here in the early 1980s. As the duchess, she delivers a choice monologue that starts generally (apropos of the duchess’s wedding in India: “The Taj Mahal was the second biggest disappointment of married life.”) and moves closer to home when the duchess (in this version) turns out to be a former diva. Soon she spots an accompanist on stage (by noting he looks underpaid) and coerces him to support her in a delectable performance of the Flanders and Swann song I’m tone deaf. Sheer joy.
If McNair upstages the other singers, they take it in stride, in part probably because they do very well themselves under conductor John McDaniel’s cheery leadership. The pint-sized soprano Ashley Emerson looks adorable as the regimental favorite and sings with a bright, clear soprano that deals handily with the music’s bravura and tessitura but also shows an expressive side in moments like her farewell to her soldierly family.
Tenor René Barbara sings Marie’s beloved Tonio with a handsome, velvety tenor and a confidence in his high C’s that is not misplaced. It would be hard to imagine a better Sergeant Sulpice than Dale Travis. A performance that at first looked stuck in routine reached some artistic heights after all.
The final performances of The Death of Klinghoffer and The Daughter of the Regiment take place Saturday and Sunday. http://www.opera-stl.org/; 314-961-0644