Saturday 3 March 2012

The Death of Klinghoffer

There are certain works which, because of their structure, hover on the fringes of the operatic form. Works like Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, which the composer didn't intend to be staged but is; or Vaughan Williams morality The Pilgrims Progress which the composer intended to be staged but which critics say is better unstaged. Then of course there are Handel's dramatic oratorios which the composer didn't write to be staged, but which have such strongly dramatic frames of reference that they work on stage.

Now, how would you define a Handelian oratorio - a work with a moral purpose, a mixture of choral and solo dramatic elements where the choruses are as important as the drama but may not actually be part of it, simply providing comment and moral structure, dramatic elements which imply a knowledge of the story and which may take extreme liberties with intercutting time and place.

Now think on to The Death of Klinghoffer and its structure starts to make sense; Adams and Goodman's opera is in fact structured like a Handelian oratorio. A fact which is emphasised by the musical strength of Adams's choruses which are the most consistently musically satisfying part opera and have had a strong life on the own in the concert hall.

Of course, Adams and Goodman intend The Death of Klinghoffer as an opera, to be staged; but when watching the piece it helps to think of this background.

ENO's staging is the first time the work has been fully staged in London (the BBC did concert performances in 2002 and the first UK staging was in 2005 by Scottish Opera). We saw the ENO production on Thursday 1st March at the London Coliseum. Directed by Tom Morris and designed by Tom Pye (sets) and Laura Hopkins (costumes), the production makes as good a case as possible for the staging of the opera. But despite the best efforts of everyone I left the theatre thinking that it would have would just as well as a concert and that still the best ever version is Penny Woolcock's film which is able to respond to the structure with a greater variety of visual images and use some of the sung elements as interior monologue.

Morris set the piece in a single, flexible set onto which projections (video design by Finn Ross) helped underline the different settings; also extensive text captions helped define the time and location of the scenes and included quotations and explanations from the original events.

The opening choruses were done in a beautifully flexible manner with the chorus simply metamorphosing from one identity to the other, thus emphasising the commonality of suffering which was surely Goodman and Adams intentions.

American baritone Christopher played the Captain as a strong, upright and sympathetic figure, for whom the element of compromise at the end over the death of Klinghofer (Alan Opie) comes as a great difficulty. Magiera brought out nicely the complex, troubled undercurrent of the man's thoughts and sang Adams music quite beautifully. He was supported by James Cleverton in the smaller role of the First Officer.

The Hijackers, Molqi, Mamoud, Rambo and Omar, were played by American tenor Edwin Vega, Anglo-Swiss baritone Richard Burkhard, American baritone Sydney Outlaw and Trinity Laban trained dancer Jesse Kovarsky. They formed a very believable group, creating characters with whom you could empathise, young men out of their depth.

Alan Opie was tremendous as Klinghoffer. American mezzo Michaela Martens made a stunning impression as the rather dowdy Marlyn Klinghofer, not only in the heart-breaking scene where she confides in the Captain whilst, unknown to her, her husband is being killed but also in the barnstorming finale aria, the brilliant coup with which Adams and Goodman finish the opera.

Lucy Schaufer, looking alarmingly as if she'd stepped out of the TV series Murder She Wrote made the most of her cameo as the Swiss Grandmother and Kate Miller-Heidke was quite simply brilliant in her cameo as the British dancing girl. If I've got things correct, Australian born Miller-Heidke has a parallel career as a singer songwriter! Kathryn Harries was moving as the Austrian woman who spends the entire duration locked in her cabin. Clare Presland sang the powerful solo for the Palestinian woman.

Whilst Arthur Pita's choreography for Omar was often moving and added greatly to the staging, a lot of the other movement seemed a distraction and the dancing Palestinians in the final chorus of Act 1 were just plain embarrassing.

The chorus were on good form and sang the beautiful choruses quite beautifully. Under Swiss composer Baldur Bronnimann the ENO orchestra played Adams score to the manner born and Bronnimann structured the piece well so that the music flowed naturally.

Though sound designers were credited, the results actually sounded quite natural with none of the artificial balance between voices and orchestra which I'd feared.

One thing struck me when writing this, the high preponderance of American singers in the opera (at least 4 of the principals were American). Its nice to see and hear new faces, but did we really need so many guests? Was there no possibility of getting Christopher Maltman to repeat his portrayal of the Captain, and surely there were a number of British singers who could have shone in these roles?

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