Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer: I Have No Words

With breathing tableaux and an emotionally wrought story, this John Adams-Alice Goodman opera delivers a punch to the gut. I'm not sure I've experienced a more chilling theatrical experience...and to think protests nearly stopped this from happening.

It is a fictionalized account of a real terrorist act.  The Achille Lauro cruise ship is hijacked by terrorists. A group of the survivors led by the Captain reflect on what happened in flashback. The Captain (Paolo Szot) tries to keep calm on board as the hijackers, Mamoud (Aubrey Allicock), Rambo (Ryan Speedo Green), and Omar (Jesse Kovarsky) threaten and menace the passengers. New Yorker Leon Klinghoffer (Alan Opie) is on the cruise with his wife (Michaela Martens). He's wheelchair bound due to a stroke. He speaks out against the hijackers. Calling them out on their list for blood over any political motives. Klinghoffer is eventually shot and the hijackers dump his body and wheelchair overboard.

As the opera is staged choruses of exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews express their struggles. The Palestinians end up protesting and demonstrating in their exile as the Jews peaceably enjoy their resettlement.  Notably the cast of Palestinians become the Jews with a quick on stage costume change.

And yes the hijackers speak of their love of music and birds and what has led them to kill. Does this humanize them? Yes. But when the opera is near its finish and the murderous hijackers make their way through the audience if you are not absolutely frozen with terror then you've missed the point.

The protests were successful in eliminating the cinema projection of this show which would have extended its reach beyond New York audiences at the Metropolitan Opera.  The show has been accused of anti-Semitism from the time of its original US premiere.  The daughters of Leon Klinghoffer were given space in the playbill to priest the show as well. They argue "It rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father...Terrorism cannot be rationalized. It cannot be understood. It can never be tolerated as a vehicle for political expression or grievance."  

Talking about terrorism doesn't justify it. Depicting it in its horror and seeing that these men who commit these atrocities come from somewhere and think this is the response to their suffering does not somehow eliminate the horror. It makes it more real. As good art should.  It seems to me we need to talk more about the complex realities of the world and stop dismissively labeling things "evil."  To call something "evil" undermines the human behind the act--it pushes it into fairy tale somehow.  And the true horror is that these are acts of men against other men and they continue to happen over and over again.  We can never hope to stop them if we don't even see them. 

I'm no opera fan (I think this was the fifth opera I'd seen) but the incredibly rich staging--with beautiful projections of water, desert, and stone, taking us from Israel to the sea made this world of stark contrasts come alive even more.  The physical choreography employed by Arthur Pita to illustrate one hijacker's desire for martyrdom and in another scene the growth of Israel (well maybe that's not what it was but that was my interpretation of the nearly naked man trees) was mesmerizing.

The opera is not without its "uh what now" moments--did we really need the dippy dancer? But the chorale moments are so epic and overwhelming that when the libretto lost me for a moment I easily fell back into it a few beats later.

Tom Morris has staged the murder of Klinghoffer twice---from two angles and even if you know what is coming it is gut-wrenching to wait for it with the burning sun in our eyes. And the final moment with the hijackers as they leave stage through the audience thrusts the horror into our laps. There is no detached escape here.  Everyone is left feeling the tragedy.  

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