Whatever else you might think about The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams's 1991 opera with Alice Goodman's libretto, there's one thing it is not: anti-Semitic. By no stretch of the desperate and frightened imagination is it the work of anti-Semites. It does, however, depict anti-Semites as characters who express their feelings -- human figures primed to commit inhumane acts in response to perverted reasoning.
Nevertheless, white-hot controversy is dogging the opera's Metropolitan Opera House premier engagement after many productions elsewhere, only some of them protested. The circumstances have, not surprisingly, clouded the reality of the Adams-Goodman work.
Stridently impassioned cries of "shame" from people at the opening night rally who haven't seen or heard The Death of Klinghoffer -- and insist ignorantly that they don't need to -- and the appearance of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, famous for objecting to the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensations" exhibit, have to some extent deflected attention from the opera itself and turned it into an either-love-it-or-hate-it matter.
Too bad, because there's much to say for and against this nearly three-hour fictionalized musical report covering what happened on the cruise ship Achille Lauro in October 1985 when four terrorists (singers Sean Panniker, Aubrey Allicock, Ryan Speedo Green, dancer Jesse Kovarsky) boarded and eventually killed the Jewish, wheel-chair-bound Leon Klinghoffer (Alan Opie), while his wife Marilyn (Michaela Martens) thought him safe in another part of the boat.
Throughout the two acts, many characters are heard expressing in retrospect their version of what occurred over the several days the cruise ship hovered along the Syria shore, such that the action shifts back and forth from those recalling their ordeal to those experiencing it in the moment, in particular the flummoxed captain (Paolo Szot).
Before Adams and Goodman get to that, however, there's a prologue in which first a Palestinian chorus and then an Israeli chorus intone their sorrows and hopes about existence in the centuries-compromised Promised Land. Both are elegiac in tone, and it has to be pointed out that since both elegies are sung by the same choristers, there's an underlying conciliatory metaphor concerning people being the same no matter what their religious convictions and allegiances.
(The Palestinian sequence was booed by a small group at the opening, later a man shouted several times that "the murder of Leon Klinghoffer will never be forgiven," and later than that a lone woman shrieked a derogatory remark. Both were taken from the auditorium.)
The opera's somber tone prevailed, it should be needless to say, and that's simultaneously the strength and weakness of Adams's score, all of it conducted with proper respect by David Robertson and directed with care by Tom Morris. At one point Robertson had the presence of mind to hold the orchestra silent until the insistent male heckler had shut up -- or been shut up.
Though it isn't quite so, the impression given during The Death of Klinghoffer is that, out of respect for the extremely sensitive subject matter, the composer has deliberately limited himself to very few notes in a mid-range. Therefore the shifting moods don't shift that much from character to character, from aria to aria or throughout most of the recitative.
Among those heard from after surviving the ordeal are a Swiss grandmother (Maria Zifchak) on shielding her grandson, an Austrian woman (Theodora Hanslowe) on waiting out the couple of days in her cabin and a British dancing girl (Kate Miller-Heidke) for whom the incident is not much more than irritating.
Sometimes, although not that often, Adams ratchets up the instrumentation to match a sudden build in the terrifying drama. Spectacularly, there's an intensifying single note sustained just before Klinghoffer is assassinated by a single shot to his head. It's fired by terrorist Omar (Kovarsky, when he's finished choreographer Arthur Pita's anguished conflicted-participant moves).
It's after that as well when the departed Klinghoffer, rising from his wheelchair, delivers a moving final declaration, "Aria of the Falling Body." His utterance is only surpassed by Marilyn's later aria, emoted when she learns her husband is dead and she refuses to accept consolation from the captain, whom she harshly accuses of being sympathetic to the hijackers. Earlier, Leon has verbally accosted one of the terrorists, and it's an understandable outburst that surely is meant to signal his being singled out for the first of the projected hostage murders, none of which are ultimately committed.
Opie, Martens and Szot sing well and with force, as do all the soloists and Donald Palumbo's chorus members. Their accomplishments are even more impressive when the unusual pressures under which they're performing are taken into account.
Those concerned that Adams and Goodman favor the terrorists should be aware that Marilyn Klinghoffer has the last word, literally -- i. e. she sings the grief-stricken closing four words, thereby giving weight to the argument that the creators haven't at all overlooked or trivialized the Klinghoffers in their issue-oriented opera.
Since attention has been so resolutely focused elsewhere, it may be of less than pressing interest that the Death of Klinghoffer production isn't esthetically pleasing. Set designer Tom Pye and video designer Finn Ross have combined their assignments for a hodge-podge of moving ship staircases, encroaching walls sometime showing radar graphs or surging oceans. Certainly, prettiness isn't called for to conjure the tragic event, but something more imposing than the jumble on stage wouldn't be out of place.
Hardly by the way, sections of the original score have been removed since 1991, and perhaps those are the ones inflaming the men and women who were wearing signs that proclaimed "I am Leon Klinghoffer." Then again, the protesters seem to be ranting as a result of the very fact that the opera exists and romanticizes the hideous affair. That is absolutely uncalled for.