John Adams‘ The Death of Klinghoffer is an opera designed to leave its audience with much to contemplate, and it succeeds mightily. The subject has sparked repeated controversy since the 1991 premiere, so much so that most of the headlines in the last year that refer to the external conflict. (Do a quick Google search and you’ll get the picture in a flash.) Much has been said for and against the opera, and Alice Goodman, the librettist, has even credited this work with ending her career (she is now an Anglican priest). But “the furore” is also actually evidence of artistic success, as Adams and Goodman have made it clear that their goal was to create a work of art that explores both sides, shakes people up, and makes them think. Mission accomplished.
This fascinating and powerful work comes to Long Beach Opera, based on the true story of the famously hijacked cruise liner, the Achille Lauro, captured in the Mediterranean in 1985, off the coast of Egypt. Four Palestinian gunmen took control of the ship, held 500 passengers hostage, and during that time, shot an unarmed elderly paraplegic, an American Jew, then threw both his body and his wheelchair overboard. His wife, who was in another part of the ship at the time, was not notified of Leon Klinghoffer’s death until the ship finally docked in Port Said.
What makes the subject so volatile is not just the needless murder itself, but the fact that the opera devotes significant time and focus to remarkably human portrayals of the terrorists — each of them gets a chance to tell bit of their own tale, illustrated in this production with simultaneous flashbacks, with children acting out a scene from each man’s childhood as an on-stage aside. The device is very effective, reminding us that, as one states, they “are not criminals, not vandals, but men of ideals”. Many will disagree with the very concept of giving a platform to terrorists. But Adams and LBO have bravely attempted to illuminate the possible motivation behind the horrendous actions of these four men, in an attempt to increase understanding, rather than validation. Lest there be any confusion, however, Artistic & General Director Andreas Mitisek made the company’s position clear during the pre-concert discussion: “We are proud to remember Leon Klinghoffer and his wife as heroes today.”
The principal cast is chock-full of LBO regulars, a reminder that this company works largely within a troupe model, and making clear that for this work, they called in their most tried-and-true stars, to great effect. Baritone Lee Gregory, as the Captain, is tasked with keeping the peace and trying to hold everything together. LBO audiences may remember Gregory from his stellar turn in last season’s House of Usher… His voice is pleasing and easy, sure-footed along rocky vocal lines.
The “Palestinian” terrorists are played by a motley crew with not a hint of typecasting: Jason Switzer is a big guy with a big voice, but somehow his sound seems nearly effortless. His sensitive portrayal conveys belief in his own moral conviction and simple, declamatory lines that bring out his most beautiful tone. Switzer is actually Jewish, and worked carefully to make his portrayal three-dimensional: “If you make it just a caricature, it doesn’t work.” Tenor Alex Richardson‘s dramatic singing shows great commitment, and Roberto Perlas Gomez sings with commanding urgency, leaving no doubt why he has become a staple singer for LBO. Peabody Southwell, in a “trouser role” as the thug Omar, plays the role believably, down to the movement and youthful cockiness of a man who believes he’s in control, but is actually quite on the edge. We don’t hear much of Southwell in Act I, but once she gets going in the second half, her voice shows the color and fire that make it so very special.
This production was created for Opera Theatre St. Louis in 2011, launching to critical acclaim. Director James Robinson stages the action with confidence and a strong understanding of both grand stage picture and individual subtext. The show has a dramatic look, with a mammoth set designed by Allen Moyer, inspired by a ship’s hull, with large panels that open and close. The set made good use of the large space, and gave us a sense of scale for the large ocean liner. Using a moving screen running the length of the stage, but narrow at about seven feet tall, clever video projections by Greg Emetaz created an artificial horizon in crucial scenes, e.g. showing us moonlight over a silent, glimmering sea, and creating a distinct sense of isolation as the boat drifts through the night. The impressively realistic makeup adding significant age to several of the characters (and making Robin Buck almost unrecognizable) was created by Dolores Kimble, who also played a small part as a supernumerary.
Although most of the choruses from Adams’ score were performed in 2009 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, this is the Southern California premiere staging of the opera. Many thanks to Long Beach Opera for bringing this daunting project to the Southland. We are lucky for the opportunity to experience this magnificent work of art.
Remaining in LBO’s season:
AN AMERICAN SOLDIER’S TALE / A FIDDLER’S TALE
By Igor Stravinsky & Wynton Marsalis
Sun. May 4 @ 7pm, Sat. May 10 @ 2pm
Center Theater, Long Beach
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field
By David Lang
Sun. June 22 @ 7pm, Sat. June 28 @ 8pm Sun. June 29 @ 2pm
Terrace Theater, Long Beach