Review: The Death of Klinghoffer

We take our seat to see the controversial opera, and wish we hadn't.

By Stephen Pollard, March 1, 2012

English National Opera, London WC2

Oppressors? Alan Opie and Michaela Martens as Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer

Oppressors? Alan Opie and Michaela Martens as Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer

John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer trails controversy in its wake. The eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin has called it antisemitic. Leon Klinghoffer's daughters described it in the JC last month as "disingenuous and appalling", saying that it "perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to rationalise, legitimise, and explain it".

The English National Opera production has certainly not been short of publicity - just the sort that promoters love, driving the curious to see what the fuss is all about.

But this time that does not seem to have helped ticket sales. There were many empty seats.

I wish mine had been one of them. My main reaction at the end was that three hours of my life had been wasted on a pile of tosh. Because whatever else The Death of Klinghoffer may be, it is deeply, yawn-inducingly boring.

I cannot think how anyone - from any perspective on the Middle East - could gain anything from seeing it. The characters, when they are given a personality, are as one-dimensional as the "Israel bad, Palestinians noble" politics. The drama (it is really not an opera but an oratorio) is entirely non-existent. And the production is at best banal, at worst tendentious and misleading.

Musically, I was reminded of Rossini's comment that "Mr Wagner has beautiful moments but bad quarters of an hour". Adams's quarters of an hour drag interminably. Indeed, what Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have to say could easily be expressed in a couple of minutes: Palestinians are the blameless victims of beastly Israelis.

That leads to the most important accusation, of antisemitism. Clearly, if you take the view that criticism of Israel is always antisemitic then you will agree with Taruskin's view of the piece.

But do you? Do you know anyone who takes that view? That is the line put forward by Israel's enemies - that the country's defenders attempt to silence critics by labelling them as antisemites. And it is a big fat lie.

The supposed antisemitism of The Death of Klinghoffer is a red herring. We can all distinguish between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, and the opera is no more than another dreary, predictable piece of unthinking Israel-bashing.

You know where you are heading with the very first lines of the opera, sung by the Chorus of Palestinian Exiles:

"My father's house was razed

In 1948

When the Israelis

Passed over our street".

Then we are told - four times, just to be sure we get it - that "Israel laid all to waste".

The Palestinians' pity is paraded before us, driven to terrorism as the inevitable and unavoidable consequence of having had their land stolen by the Israelis.

The hijackers of the Achille Lauro are given back-stories, each representing an archetype. One is a poet, his flowery words presumably meant to show us the romantic heart that beats inside him, suppressed by the brutal Israelis. Another wears a suit. One is, yes, a thug.

And the Palestinian who shoots Klinghoffer is, it emerges, not even responsible for his behaviour. The opera flashes back to his mother brainwashing him into becoming a martyr for his people's cause. You see, he had no choice but to murder a Jew in cold blood. It was his mother's fault.

Other than Mr and Mrs Klinghoffer, none of the Jewish captives are given any personality. They move around the stage in a block, interchangeable. They are simply representatives of the oppressors.

As for Leon Klinghoffer: he expresses his anger at the Palestinians and calls them "shits". And that is about as far as his character is drawn.

Tom Morris's production simply adds to the one-dimensional mindset behind the opera. The set is built around a representation of the West Bank security wall (which did not even exist when Klinghoffer was murdered). In case you do not dig what the composer and librettist are saying, then you will get it visually. It is all about Israeli oppression, see.

It seems to me that Adams's real intent is revealed at the end. The ship's Captain is berating the terrorists' leader. You had done such a good job, the Captain says. You stirred the conscience of a sleepy world. And then you went and ruined it by killing Klinghoffer.

That, surely, is the voice of Adams and Goodman.

Last updated: 11:54am, March 1 2012