The Death of Klinghoffer; Rusalka – review

Coliseum; Royal Opera House, London

If all the media uproar about opera last week was to be believed, you could hardly venture forth into the auditorium without wearing a bullet-proof vest or declaring a taste for red-knicker satin, sluttish nymphettes and king-sized perverted cats, though not all at the same time or in the same place. Who would have predicted that two polar-opposite operas could have provoked such paradoxical responses?

The controversy over John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, about the killing of an American Jewish passenger on the hijacked Achille Lauro cruise liner in 1985, was expected. Genuine anxiety hovered over the first night. Would those who condemn the work as pro-Palestinian and antisemitic, whose resistance had scuppered other performances over the years since its 1991 premiere in Brussels, allow ENO's new staging – a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, New York – to go ahead peacefully? Protests seemed inevitable. Instead there was one man, one placard outside. The performance passed without incident and the mood was, if anything, curiously subdued.

Two days later more extreme outrage – at least within the confines of a theatre performance – was provoked by Dvorák's seemingly nice, watery fairytale opera Rusalka, concerning a doomed mermaid who falls in love with a man. The Royal Opera's new staging, first seen in Salzburg in 2008, was greeted by boos on account of its schlocky Euro-suburban bordello setting, all tacky laminate and frosted glass and pussies, and barely a water reed or a puddle in sight. Several people left.

It's certainly hard to see how the ROH ever thought it might appeal to a UK audience, but trampling on good taste does not in itself render a production futile. A better link-up for the company might have been with the recent Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich staging – available on a 2010 DVD – which pushed the opera's horrors to its limits by portraying Vodnik the water goblin as Josef Fritzl, Rusalka as his cellar-incarcerated daughter. It manages to be both terrifying and visually stunning.

At least the dazzling musical standards, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin making his house debut, were recognised. Camilla Nylund, after a cool start, warmed to the agony and sexual passion of the title role, heading a fine cast. Rusalka remains a troubling piece and Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production, though certainly not likable and never charming, embraced its bizarre, kitschy nature. The opera has its devotees, but each time I encounter it I feel more repelled by its cruelty, despite the rhapsodic glories of Dvorák's score.

Klinghoffer, meanwhile, was the event of the season and deserves all the space we can give it. The London premiere staging was a significant triumph for English National Opera, even if Tom Morris's production fell short of conveying the chilling clarity of the piece, captured in Penny Woolcock's 90-minute film version for Channel 4. At ENO the singing and playing, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann, was formidable: Adams's score, often slow, elegiac, drawing on a tradition of Bach Passions rather than grand opera, is one of his best.

Additions and subtractions have occurred since the work was new: the opening two choruses, of Palestinians and Jews, in the proximate but discrete keys of G minor and F minor, were originally separated by a scene of a Jewish family at home in New Jersey. Now, wedged together, the long, emotive outpouring of Palestinian exiles has yet greater prominence than the short, Jewish chorus, in which figures in orthodox garb plant trees. If you see the work as docudrama, you may object to the bias and anachronism, to the repetition of the line "Israel laid all to waste" by those waving a green Palestinian flag.

If instead you regard it as historical fable – a means of trying to comprehend a criminal action – you are more likely to accept its rationale. All definitions of history circle around the blindingly obvious question of how to tell the truth. Alice Goodman's libretto, though clearly based on true events, makes no pretence at reportage. You may think it's the terrorists who get all the good tunes, yet the work's humanity is voiced chiefly through the compassionate words of Leon Klinghoffer himself: an ordinary family man trying to do good, care for those he loves and avoid trouble.

The key scene on the bridge, in which the captain (Christopher Magiera) and his captor Mamoud (Richard Burkhard) share memories and laments, brings the action to a pause but no more than many other such moments in opera. Wagner is full of them. Morris (of War Horse fame), his designer Tom Pye and lighting designer Jean Kalman seem to struggle with this, rushing to amplify the story with film projection and a hinged, concrete wall suggestive of the West Bank barrier. You have little sense of the isolation of a ship on the high seas.

The staging is often dark and indistinct despite brilliant moments: one was the choreographed depiction of the dead Klinghoffer and his wheelchair falling to the ocean bed as his ghostly double (movingly performed by Alan Opie) sings his "Aria of the Falling Body". A top ensemble cast deserves high praise, among them Michaela Martens as the dignified, distraught Mrs Klinghoffer, Kate Miller-Heidke's sharp, ditsy British dancing girl, Lucy Schaufer, Clare Presland and more. The orchestra was faithful to the dissonant riches of the score.

After the shouting and politicking, the accusations that this opera should never have been written, that it might work better as an oratorio, I am glad to have seen it and to have witnessed John Adams cheered so generously. The writing of Klinghoffer was a mad imperative for its creators, as all works of art are, and the questions it raises grow no easier. Americans, especially post-9/11, will doubtless react more vociferously when this staging gets to New York, theoretically in 2014-15.

Britain may consider itself less involved, yet its own role, forgotten or never known by most of us, goes back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which triggered a sequence of unimaginable and unintended sorrows. No composer or librettist or director or musician, no single audience member or critic can say anything new about an issue which has split two entire peoples for so long. If history, according to Voltaire, is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up, John Adams's important yet elusive score gives us a coruscating sampling of each.

Contributor

Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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