Posts Tagged ‘John Adams’

The Death of Klinghoffer, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2012

29 February, 2012

This opera has sparked controversy at its first staging in London. Why?

All images by Richard Hubert Smith

The essential story is that in 1985 an Italian cruise ship at dock in Alexandria was hijacked by four Palestinian terrorists, who seem to have had a confused idea about freeing prisoners in Israeli jails. Many of the people on the cruise were away at a tour of the pyramids, leaving mainly women and children on board, along with a 70-year old American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer in a wheelchair. The terrorists ended up negotiating some kind of deal for landing the ship in Syria after shooting Klinghoffer in the back and dumping him and his chair overboard.

Klinghoffer and wife

The opera itself, created by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, serves to remind us of an unedifying spectacle in the recent history of terrorism, and the anti-semitic remarks made by the Palestinians surely do not reflect the opinions of either composer or librettist. The production by Tom Morris, with sets by Tom Pye, hews closely to the concept embodied in this creation, but does the whole thing work?

Five years ago I saw a rather lovely Adams opera called  A Flowering Tree, based on an old Tamil story, a far cry from the days when he went out of his way to tackle political issues. Nixon in China was wonderful, and Klinghoffer and Dr. Atomic have been acclaimed by some. Part of the problem with Klinghoffer may be that Alice Goodman delivered her libretto in pieces, the choral parts first, and as a result the whole work is structured around six choruses, making it a cross between an oratorio and an opera.

The choral pieces are conceived in pairs, like the days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis where days 1, 2, 3 are paired with days 4, 5, 6. Here though the first pair, the chorus of Exiled Palestinians and chorus of Exiled Jews, comes in the Prologue. The Ocean chorus and the Night chorus end scenes 1 and 2 of Act I, and their counterparts, the Desert chorus and the Day chorus end scenes 1 and 2 of Act II.

Conducting by Baldur Brönnimann brought out the beauty of these choral passages, which form the musical strength of this work, and some of the solo performances came off well, particularly Alan Opie as Klinghoffer. Richard Burkhard gave a strong performance as the principal terrorist and Jesse Kovarsky did a nice dance number to complement his singing as another terrorist, but the strength of Adams’ creation is musical rather than theatrical.

Jesse Kovarsky in the dance number

Video projections by Tom Pye helped this rather static opera, sometimes showing the wake of a moving ship, sometimes the background to the choruses, and perhaps a semi-staged version in somewhere like the Festival Hall would work well too. But certainly the production fitted the opera, unlike the Rusalka now playing at Covent Garden.

Performances continue until March 9 — for details click here.

Nixon in China, Metropolitan Opera live relay, cinema, February 2011

13 February, 2011

In February 1972, Richard Nixon made a dramatic break to previous US foreign policy by opening up to China, visiting Beijing and meeting Mao Tse-tung and his foreign secretary Chou En-lai. Ten years later, Peter Sellars had the idea for turning this visit into an opera, and he put together a team, with John Adams as the composer, Alice Goodman as librettist, and Mark Morris as choreographer. The opera was first produced in Houston in 1987, and though each of the team claimed it was a joint effort, Adams’s music is surely the key feature, and has achieved well-deserved acclaim. This is the first time the Met has put it on, and English audiences may recall the same production at the English National Opera ten years ago. As before, Peter Sellars is the director, with Mark Morris in charge of the choreography, and on this occasion John Adams himself was in the orchestra pit.

Richard and Pat Nixon land at Beijing, all images Ken Howard

The story starts with the landing of the presidential aircraft, followed by a welcome ceremony for the visitors in which Chou En-lai enquires whether Nixon had a good flight. He says it was smooth, though the music conveys a different opinion. Meanwhile the chorus sings a repeated refrain of The people are the heroes now/ Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow. When Nixon meets Mao and comments on foreign issues in relation to other countries in East Asia, Mao waves this away as the business of others — his business is philosophy. As Adams said in one of the intermission interviews, Mao is portrayed as either brilliantly philosophical or just senile., and within its six tableaux this opera allows the participants to express their world-views in a series of conversations or soliloquies.

Mao and Nixon

One of the most dramatic scenes occurs in Act II when Nixon and his wife Pat, Chou, Mao and his wife Chiang Ch’ing come together to watch a Chinese ballet in which an abusive landowner, played by Henry Kissinger, is thwarted by the courageous women soldiers of the State. The Nixons get emotionally involved in the action, and at the end, Chiang Ch’ing expresses her view of the cultural revolution. Her lines are shrill, including We’ll teach these motherfuckers how to dance, her music that of a coloratura soprano, and she is the only character portrayed unsympathetically.

The opera ends with Chou En-lai’s soliloquy “I am old . . .”, beautifully delivered by Russell Braun who gave a wonderful performance, holding his hand to his body as if in pain — only later was it known that Chou was suffering from undiagnosed pancreatic cancer. Kathleen Kim gave an excellent portrayal of Chiang Ch’ing, and Janis Kelly sang with sympathy and affection as Pat Nixon, a role she also performed at the English National Opera in a previous version of this production. Robert Brubaker performed well as Mao, and James Maddalena, who was the original Richard Nixon in 1987, repeated the role here though his voice may have faded a little with time. Richard Paul Fink sang the oafish role of Kissinger, and gave a fine performance in the Act II ballet.

The end of the ballet

The intermission interviews are a wonderful aspect of these Met broadcasts, and Thomas Hampson did a great job of letting the interviewees speak for themselves. Peter Sellars exuded enthusiasm from his toes to the end of his extraordinary hair-do, extolling Adams’s music and saying “it builds and has tension . . . rather like Mozart”. Janis Kelly was equally laudatory, calling it a “twentieth century masterpiece”. The sets by Adrianne Lobel were based on original photos of the trip, but it’s always difficult in these broadcasts to fully appreciate the sets since very few images show the whole stage, and the lighting seemed rather dark.

All in all this is a great piece of music theatre and I congratulate the Met for broadcasting it.

Dr. Atomic, live cinema screening from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Nov 2008

28 November, 2008

This is about Robert Oppenheimer’s leadership of the Second World War quest to build a nuclear bomb. The music by John Adams is wonderful, but the libretto by Peter Sellars falls far short of expressing the potential drama of this story. As a piece of theatre this opera fails, and I kept my eyes closed through most of it. When I opened them, the stage action never seemed to match the music. A better libretto would surely have inspired Adams to give us a more theatrical show, and for his next opera he needs to abandon the collaboration with Sellars. There were too many weaknesses, but the plaintive cry of a Japanese mother at the end was surely an unnecessarily egregious extension of a drama that by this time had rather failed to convey the urgency and determination of the scientists who made it all possible. As for the general in charge complaining that he had difficulty keeping his weight down, the less said the better. The best part of the performance was Gerald Finley’s wonderful portrayal of Oppenheimer, with Sasha Cooke as his wife. Other performers sang well: Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, Thomas Glenn as Robert Wilson, and Eric Owens as the general, to name three, and the music was well conducted by Alan Gilbert. But it was a weak production by Penny Woolcock and did nothing to match the rhythmic intensity of Adams’ music, with ineffective sets by Julian Crouch, and darkly conspiratorial lighting by Brain MacDevitt. Many of the audience loved it, but I suspect it was as a catharsis to their sense of guilt over the use of the bomb in 1945.