Hijacking, murder and terror on the high seas: you might expect that The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams's 1991 opera about the Palestinian hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro has all the makings of a pot-boiling thriller. But you would be wrong: Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have other fish to fry.

The Death of Klinghoffer, Chorus 8, © Richard Hubert Smith
The Death of Klinghoffer, Chorus 8,
© Richard Hubert Smith

Rather that a straight telling of the Achille Lauro story, The Death of Klinghoffer is billed as Adams and Goodman’s “emotional response” to it, attempting to encompass a broad sweep of the cultural and historical background to the 1985 events. The result is something that feels more like oratorio than opera: a series of episodes from the hijacking itself interspersed with later retellings by crew and passengers and a series of big chorus numbers. The chorus comments on events much in the style of a chorus in Greek tragedy - or rather, three different choruses representing the Palestinian people, the Jewish people and the passengers.

I loved Adams’s music, which is mostly elegiac and haunting, with a hypnotic character created by the use of repeated figures (admirers of Philip Glass’s film scores will find much in common). Often, though, Adams departs from this style to create different effects: bursts of powerful dissonance in the action scenes involving the terrorists, a kitsch dance tune in a comic relief scene in which events are told by a rather dippy British dancing girl.

The setting is mainly created by video projected onto a backdrop of full height blocks which look like concrete walls (perhaps depicting the Israeli security fence) when nothing is projected onto them. I’m not often a fan of such video sets, but Finn Ross’s creation is artistic and impressive, allowing us to switch at will between seascape, Judaean desert, Syrian coastline or the decks and cabins of the Achille Lauro.

But I was not convinced by the libretto. The “straight” elements - the ones when the characters discourse with each other - worked perfectly well. In much of the opera, however, Goodman is creating a poetic evocation of the various circumstances: I started off with the simple feeling that I just wasn’t getting the poetry, but by the end had decided that much of it was nonsensical. The most egregious example is when the elderly Marilyn Klinghoffer discovers that her wheelchair-bound husband is not safely in the cruise ship’s infirmary (as she has been led to believe), but has actually been shot and dumped overboard. Of the various things she might be feeling, I don’t somehow think they include imagining herself to be a pregnant woman impatient to commune with her unborn son.

Taken as a whole, the work sets itself some big political aims, and I don’t think it achieves them. The intention is a noble one: to present the two sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an even-handed way and to give insight into the depth of feeling and motivation on both sides (statement of interest: I am Jewish, I have family in Israel, I am reasonably well read about terrorists’ motivations and methods, and I’m strongly in the peacenik camp who think Israel behaves pretty terribly towards the Palestinians). And the opera does give some insights. But I found a great deal of it to be very unsubtle: the Palestinians are either noble freedom fighters in a lost cause, thuggish terrorists filled with violence and hate or deluded souls killing infidels to reach paradise; the Jews are either bloated plutocrats focused only on their petty selfish concerns or a primal people deeply connected to its ancestral land. For me, The Death of Klinghoffer misses the chance to make some of the most telling points on both sides of the argument.

But even if the work as a whole misses the mark, many of its component scenes hit the target squarely in the middle, particularly given strong performances from the large ensemble cast. Out of many individual episodes I could name, the most powerful are the confrontation: when Klinghoffer, sung powerfully by Alan Opie, confronts the terrorist leader accusing the Palestinians of being filled with hatred, and when the captain tells the terrorists to kill him next rather than pick off the passengers one by one. Most of all, the final scene between Marilyn Klinghoffer and the captain was superb - Christopher Magiera strong and nuanced as the captain, and Michaela Martens explosive in the confrontation and in her final aria.

For all its flaws, I’m glad to have seen The Death of Klinghoffer: it’s wonderful music within a genre very different to standard operatic fare, there are many moments that will leave strong memories. Perhaps it was too much to expect sophisticated political insight in such difficult terrain, and it’s to ENO’s credit that they stage material like this in a highly competent production.

***11