Opera’s contemporary revolutionaries have done it again. The trio that brought grand opera into our own time with 1987’s Nixon in China — John Adams (music), Alice Goodman (words), and Peter Sellars (stage wizardry) — has proven again that successful opera doesn’t have to be about Nordic gods and betrayed druids. The Death of Klinghoffer arrived in the U.S. earlier this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music after having premiered last March in Brussels (the Nonesuch recording will be released early next year). It shares the diabolical creativity of Nixon; but while the adventures of Dick and Pat in Mao-land rolled along like a cartoon newsreel, Goodman’s text here, centering on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise vessel Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, aged and in a wheelchair, surrounds that split-second catastrophe with actionless meditation and soul-searching. It’s a distillation of hostilities, shared by Jew and Arab alike, that reach back to biblical times.
Words, not swords, clash in Klinghoffer. Even the murder happens offstage, signaled by an ominous roll of drums that breaks in upon wife Marilyn Klinghoffer’s nattering, self-indulgent monologue. A later, shattering moment takes place in near silence, as the body of the slain Klinghoffer descends on a wire, slowly turning, from the top of the enormous erector set that designer George Tsypin built to represent the Achille Lauro.
And the music? Tarred early on as a minimalist, the 44-year-old Adams long ago shook loose from the chug-chugging patterning of that obsessive style in favor of dozens of user-friendly musics that merge in entirely original ways. Early in Klinghoffer, Adams bathes the stage in the warm goo of a New Age rip-off; this becomes a launching pad into the whizzing, abrasive violence of the terrorist scenes, the toneless apathy in Marilyn Klinghoffer’s accents, and the quiet lyricism as the Lauro‘s captain vainly gropes for words of solace.
The performing forces constitute a staunch repertory unit. Conductor Kent Nagano led a Nixon revival last year in L.A. (where, along with San Francisco, Klinghoffer will tour). The splendid baritones from Nixon, James Maddalena (Nixon) and Sanford Sylvan (Chou En-lai), are compelling again as the Captain and Klinghoffer. Eugene Perry, Don Giovanni in a Sellars video, is the terrorist leader, his every phrase a dagger thrust. Contralto Sheila Nadler, new to the company, is Marilyn, who chills us with her final ”I wanted to die,” which, like her husband’s ravaged body a few moments earlier, hangs suspended in silence.