SAN FRANCISCO–Re-worked and re choreographed since its initial perf at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, on March 19, 1991, the Peter Sellars (director)/John Adams (music)/Alice Goodman (libretto) opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” received its West Coast premiere Saturday at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. Response to this complex operatic treatment of the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, was exceedingly positive.
Part passion play, part docudrama, part modern ballet, “Klinghoffer” depicts the hijacking and murder as a crystalline moment in the long history of conflict between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinian people. It is a somber exploration of suffering and loss that attempts to deal with current events in terms of their deep-seeded roots.
The opera’s intricate, often poetic libretto combines the hard, violent reality of the actual event with abstract reveries, reflective arias and a series of monumental choruses reminiscent of a Bach “Passion.” The action is further enhanced by a large cast of dancers representing the passengers and crew. And in several scenes, live video projections provide closeup views of key characters.
The stage setting, designed by George Tsypin, is a towering chromium scaffold , whose ascending pipes, metallic fences, ramps and elevators come to represent the superstructure of the ship. Rising 35 feet to the very top of the opera house stage, it provides a fascinating onstage environment for the action.
Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris use the opera’s chorus and dancers to create a constant flow of bodies. Then, at key moments, principal dancers interact with the singers as balletic alter-egos.
But, like a Greek drama, key incidents of violence are not depicted on-stage. And in the opera’s pivotal scene, Marilyn Klinghoffer, who has been separated from her husband and thinks he is safely below decks in the ship’s hospital, is completely unaware that at that moment he is being executed.
As a great orchestral crescendo heralds the event, Marilyn laments the inequities of the medical treatment of stroke victims (like her husband). At that moment, Leon’s body slowly descends through space toward the sea. It is a chilling moment, perfectly conceived.
John Adams’ score provides both substance and structure to the drama. The music is at once ultra-modern and romantic. At times, it even evokes a spirit of Orientalism in the style of Rimsky-Korsakov.
The cast of singers is uniformly strong. Most have worked with Sellars before on projects like his Mozart cycle and “Nixon in China.” James Maddalena projects a strong and thoughtful presence as the Achille Lauro’s captain. Sanford Sylvan is totally sympathetic as Leon Klinghoffer; so is Sheila Nadler as his wife, Marilyn, the opera’s most humanely eloquent voice.
Eugene Perry, Thomas Young, Stephanie Friedman and Thomas Hammons are at once frightening and multidimensional as the Palestinian terrorists. Janice Felty provides some giddy lightness as the British Dancing girl.