Unlike a number of dud English National Opera productions for which ‘controversial' was a hopeful euphemism for ‘dreadful', The Death of Klinghoffer can carry the ‘c' word with pride. It is a ripely polarising project on just about every level – politically, theatrically, musically – and, though my own reaction was lukewarm at best, the company can be proud of it. A cannily-chosen creative team has shown care, flair and enterprise in mounting London's first fully-staged production of John Adams's 1991 opera.
The hijacking in 1985 of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by a group of Palestinian terrorists, who in the process murdered a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American passenger, will be a familiar story to anyone who was around at the time. Viewed a quarter of a century after the events it depicts, the opera adds little to our sum of knowledge other than to remind the modern world of a half-forgotten incident. Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, appear to be anatomising the hijackers' motives in a non-judgemental light; but to what end? A crime is a crime in anyone's language, and plenty of others have been perpetrated before and since on either side of the middle-east divide.
If understanding is the first step towards reconciliation, turn to ENO's programme. As well as a revealing article by Adams himself, it includes extended extracts from the Achille Lauro Captain's memoir, a document whose vivid reportage communicates with a power that eludes Goodman, for all her verbiage. Whenever a libretto gets too big for its boots I think of Dido's Lament, in which Purcell weaves a four-minute aria of aching beauty from four spare lines by Nahum Tate. Goodman, by contrast, has so much to say that her composer struggles to keep up. John Adams is very much the junior partner here, an illustrator of words rather than the driving force behind the opera.
Brönnimann conducts the responsive ENO Orchestra and Chorus at more conservative tempos than I remember from Kent Nagano's highly-charged CD recording. As for Tom Morris, he directs this unashamedly meditative piece with a theatrical instinct that the score itself lacks. While the staging is never wholly naturalistic, he and his designer Tom Pye are not afraid to inject flashes of realism throughout. Within the constant environment of an austere modern desertscape – dusty terrain and concrete slabs – the ship itself is evoked through a mixture of projections (by the ubiquitous Finn Ross) and scattered scenic elements.
Every production I have seen at ENO this season has been cast from strength, and The Death of Klinghoffer is no exception. From Alan Opie as the doomed American to Christopher Magiera's Captain and the remarkable young tenor Edwin Vega as the terrorist leader, this is a superior ensemble. Lucy Schaufer and Kate Miller-Heidke play two very different passengers on the ship and find more drama than most in their characters; but the most searing performance comes from Michaela Martens as Mrs Klinghoffer. Her moving final aria gives a sense of what might have been had Adams chosen to write a more traditional opera.
ENO's Artistic Director John Berry rightly characterises The Death of Klinghoffer as lying "somewhere between operatic convention and a musical journey told through arias and choruses that hint at the manner of Bach's Passions". Just so; and that is why, for all the work's cerebral zeal, its lack of theatrical urgency (plus ENO's tell-tale decision to cut one of the extended choruses altogether) suggests it belongs elsewhere than in the opera house.