Few operas in history have been as instantly controversial as The Death of ! Klinghoffer. To begin with, the subject matter is politically incendiary: the brutal 1985 murder of a wheelchair-using American Jew by Palestinian terrorists aboard the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. Further, the opera is the second collaboration by composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, choreographer Mark Morris and director Peter Sellars -- the people behind Nixon in China. That dazzling 1987 opera left a trail of argument in its wake as it made its way across America and Europe. Surely, Klinghoffer would be even more provocative than its predecessor. Wouldn't it?
The Belgians thought so. During the gulf crisis, some of them urged that the opera's world premiere in Brussels be postponed, out of fear that it might incite real terrorism. When the opera had its world premiere last week at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, security was tight. But surprise: Klinghoffer is not that kind of provocateur. Just as the lyrical and deeply humanistic Nixon confounded many who had expected a leftist demonization of the old unindicted co-conspirator, so has this sweet, sorrowful Klinghoffer upended everyone's expectations.
For one thing, it's no Nixon. That work contained big, powerful set pieces: the Nixons' arrival in Peking aboard the Spirit of '76; the spellbinding banquet scene; a hallucinatory ballet; a tender aria for Pat and a hair raiser for Madame Mao. Instead, the new work takes its cue from Nixon's third act, a contemplative series of interlocking monologues that stripped the statesmen of their blue suits and Mao jackets and revealed them for the tired, nervous and scared human beings they were.
Accordingly, Klinghoffer is no docudrama but rather a stylized, subtle, Rashomon-like retelling of the tragedy. It takes no prisoners, and takes no sides either. On Sellars' voyage, confusion is captain, and perspectives shift like ocean waves. Along with Leon Klinghoffer, truth becomes a casualty. The director has clad the entire cast in anonymous street clothes, and many roles are doubled -- now friend, now foe -- and who can tell the difference?
"On the 'politically correct' scale, we don't even register," comments Sellars gleefully. "People come expecting machine-gun fire and bodies being thrown overboard, and what they get is a bunch of art." Complementing Sellars' vision is Morris' integrated choreography: a silent shadow subtext that swells emotionally as the opera progresses until it hijacks the action, transforming and finally transfiguring it.
In his most flexible score to date, Adams has erected huge choral pillars to frame the action and provide context. In between, he spins out long, shimmering arias whose sinuous lines deny the listener the security of a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure. Once a card carrying minimalist, the composer now weds a sturdy rhythmic pulse with a freer melodic and harmonic idiom that can evoke with equal aplomb a Monteverdi arioso, a Mendelssohn scherzo or Duke of Earl.