St. Louis makes strong case for 'Klinghoffer'

MIKE SILVERMAN - For The Associated Press
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In this photograph provided by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Brian Mulligan as Leon Klinghoffer, Nancy Maultsby as Marilyn Klinghoffer, and Matthew DiBattista as Molqi perform during a rehearsal of the opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" Monday, June 13, 2011 in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Ken Howard)

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (AP) — Ripped from headlines about the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, John Adams' opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" has had a troubled history since its premiere in 1991.

The lionized composer of "Nixon in China" and his librettist, Alice Goodman, found their new work instantly condemned by some critics as a glorification of Palestinian terrorists.

The first U.S. performances in Brooklyn were picketed, other productions were canceled and the two daughters of Leon Klinghoffer, the Jewish passenger who was murdered in his wheelchair and thrown overboard, denounced the opera as anti-Semitic. Even a decade later, plans by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to perform excerpts were scrapped in the wake of 9/11.

"'Nixon' had made me famous and 'Klinghoffer' had made me infamous," Adams wrote in his autobiography.

But the tide may be turning. Recent concert performances have been successful, and now the enterprising Opera Theatre of St. Louis has stepped forward with the first fully staged production in the U.S. in 20 years.

Seen at a matinee on Tuesday, the terrific performance made a strong case for "Klinghoffer" as a gripping and eerily beautiful work, more ambitious in scope than the basically light-hearted and ebullient "Nixon." And James Robinson's stark production should help put to rest any complaint that the opera is slanted in favor of the four Palestinians.

What it does do is individualize them and allow us to glimpse the roots — personal and historical — of their rage.

But the murder of Klinghoffer is never seen as less than a barbaric act. Before a single note of music is heard, gunshots ring out and bulkheadlike metallic walls at the rear of the stage open to reveal an empty wheelchair, cascades of water pouring down on it, evoking its eventual descent to the ocean floor.

Then come the two opening choruses, one for the exiled Palestinians, one for the exiled Jews — both eloquently sung here by members of the company's young artist program, who switch gears by making quick adjustments to the simple costumes provided by James Schuette. Each chorus lasts almost exactly eight minutes, and together they set up a precarious balance that is maintained throughout the opera. (Adams excised a scene that originally followed these, in which the Klinghoffers' Jewish neighbors were depicted in a way that many saw as stereotyping.)

These and five subsequent choruses form the backbone of "Klinghoffer," which is as much oratorio as opera. That doesn't mean, however, that it lacks drama. Interspersed with the choruses is a series of narratives by the ship's captain, passengers, the hijackers, and Klinghoffer himself and his wife, Marilyn.

As staged by Robinson on Allen Moyer's minimalist set, these solos tell an increasingly tense story of events aboard the ship, culminating in the final scene in which the captain informs Mrs. Klinghoffer of her husband's fate. Mrs. Klinghoffer, who was terminally ill with cancer at the time of the cruise, gets the last word in a soliloquy of tragic grandeur, ending with the shattering words: "They should have killed me. I wanted to die."

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby delivered those lines with a searing emotional directness that was matched by the entire cast.

Baritone Brian Mulligan gave sharp point to Klinghoffer's contempt for the hijackers. Baritone Christopher Magiera sang the captain's contemplative phrases with warmth and an aching sense of regret. And, though judging voices can be tricky given that Adams requires electronic amplification for his singers, Aubrey Allicock as the hijacker Mamoud revealed a bass-baritone of impressive size and richness.

The orchestra, drawn from the St. Louis Symphony, played marvelously under the baton of Michael Christie. They used a reduced orchestration authorized by the composer which captured especially well the brooding evocations of the sea that haunt Adams' score.