Powerful ‘Klinghoffer’ in Long Beach

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.

Alex Richardson (Molqi), Roberto Perlas Gomez (Rambo), Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Robin Buck (Leon Klinghoffer)
Alex Richardson (Molqi), Roberto Perlas Gomez (Rambo), Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), Robin Buck (Leon Klinghoffer)

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.

Israel Matthews (Boy), Jason Switzer (Momoud) in Long Beach Opera's 2014 'The Death of Klinghoffer'.  Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
Israel Matthews (Boy), Jason Switzer (Momoud). Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

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 women’s chorus is the first singing we hear, and the haunting unison melody sets the scene with lyrical, winding melismas.  The chorus women are one of the greatest assets in a difficult show, singing angelicly and with sad sweetness as they tell their tale.  The chorus as a whole has an almost entrancing ensemble tone, but it is the women who are most comfortable and communicative in their parts.
Lee Gregory (The Captain) in Long Beach Opera's 2014 'The Death of Klinghoffer'.  Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.
Lee Gregory (The Captain)

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.

Robin Buck, as the chair-bound but feisty Leon Klinghoffer, rails at the terrorists, his main aria showing righteous anger in the face of evil.  He’s kind of a mouthy old codger, tired of being pushed around, with no intention of offering sympathy for his captors at any turn. But he parts with his wife with great tenderness, showing the strength in Buck’s voice and the versatility in his characterizations.  Suzan Hanson‘s role as Marilyn Klinghoffer gives her lower range an impressive stretch, and this almost impossibly sorrowful role is in good hands with an actress of this caliber.  Her reminiscences are stained with tears and the sound of emotion, but where this might impair some voices, hers is strong and full of evocative power.
Danielle Marcelle Bond is rapidly becoming an LBO regular, and gets three chances here to show off her acting chops, particularly disappearing into the first of her small roles and sounding well throughout. Her Swiss grandmother, Austrian traveler and British ditz showed off vocal and stage versatility, and offered moments of comic relief.

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. 

The orchestra, led by Mitisek, grounds the vocal melodies with driving, often frenetic rhythms, while strings wander through the score like a dream.  The ensemble is in full conversation with itself, crying out and bouncing themes back and forth.  The textures are rich and the pace is often frenzied, but there is clear method beneath it all.  While Adams is still often labeled a “minimalist”, this work shows his development into full maturity and far more complexity.  Mitisek calls the label a misnomer,  “and especially in this work.  Compared to Nixon in China, this is a soundscape, very intricate.”
Chorus and set from Long Beach Opera's 2014 'The Death of Klinghoffer'.  Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
The chorus and set from LBO’s ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’

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.

One performance remains, on March 22 at 8pm.

Remaining in LBO’s season:

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

Get more details and tickets on the company’s website

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