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The verdict(s) on “Klinghoffer:” a review roundup

The chorus of exiled Palestinians sings in John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which provoked protests and a range of critical responses when it opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night. The general critical consensus: you may like the opera or not, but it isn’t anti-Semitic. (credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

I am still in the process of reading all of the critical responses that have appeared so far to the “Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera, and I know more will follow. I am compiling all the links here in part simply as a service to myself, but I’m sure I’m not the only person who is interested in the discussion. I’ll keep adding more as I get them. (ETA: Thanks to Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight for her own compilation, which added several to my list.)

A further addendum: After my review ran online, I rewrote it completely for the print edition of the Washington Post. Due to complications with various publishing platforms, however, the on-line version, rather than the rewritten version, is what made it into print. Since I took the trouble to write it, I am further blurring the for-print/online distinction by running it below – online.

The critics speak on “The Death of Klinghoffer:”

Alex Ross in The New Yorker

Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times

Justin Davidson in New York Magazine

James Jorden in the New York Observer

Manuela Hoelterhoff on

Martin Bernheimer in The Financial Times

Heidi Waleson in The Wall Street Journal

Mark Swed in The Los Angeles Times

Joe Dziemieanowicz in The New York Daily News

John Yohalem on

George Grella in New York Classical Review

Paul Pelkonen on Superconductor

Ivy on Poison Ivy’s Wall of Text

Pamela McCorduck on Iron Tongue of Midnight

Sam Reising on I Care if You Listen

Four New Yorkers with four different perspectives in The Guardian

Michael Walsh on Unexamined Premises (he writes about the brouhaha, and posts his review of the 1991 world premiere at the end)

Ami Eden in the Jewish Telegraph

Tim Smith in The Baltimore Sun

David Patrick Stearns in The Philadelphia Inquirer

David Patrick Stearns on WQXR’s Operavore blog

Brian Schaefer in Haaretz

Glen Roven on The Huffington Post

Micaela Baranello on Likely Impossibilities … evenings at the opera

Susan Elliott on

Walter Russell Mead in Time

The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC radio devoted a whole program to the opera, including a roundtable discussion between me, Floyd Abrams, and Moustafa Bayoumi.

Anne Midgette’s revised review:

“Embattled ‘Klinghoffer’ plays the Met.”

by Anne Midgette

NEW YORK — After months of increasingly heated debate, and in the midst of much-heralded protests and the largest police presence Lincoln Center has seen for some time, John Adams’s opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” finally made it to the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night. The work, based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the attendant murder of a passenger who was American, Jewish, and in a wheelchair, has been called anti-Semitic by some and a masterpiece by others. Monday’s performance may not have changed anybody’s mind; it proved, like the protests, somewhat inconclusive.

It was, however, received with ovations — justified accolades for the fine musicians who had braved a lot of heat, and even threats, to make sure that the show went on. There was particular applause for David Robertson, the elegant and sometimes overpowering conductor, and even a roar of approval for Adams, who was surely braced, when he walked out on stage, for a more mixed reaction. Although the accolades were all deserved, it was odd to see such adulation for a piece that remains, ultimately, a deeply flawed opera.

Following the success of “Nixon in China,” Adams’s first “docu-opera” with the team of Peter Sellars (as creator-director) and Alice Goodman (as librettist), “The Death of Klinghoffer” targeted another provocative contemporary topic, aiming to show both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate in a work conceived as a kind of modern-day answer to the Bach Passions. Adams’s music in this piece has moved from the kinetic, colorful zaniness of “Nixon in China” to a richer and more nuanced vocabulary, with moving instrumental solos intertwining with the voices, and shining choruses pregnant with tension. It’s also a lot more static. That isn’t entirely his fault. Even the strongest music cannot redeem a libretto as diffuse and verbose and full of blather as Goodman’s tedious “Klinghoffer” text. It drones on and on without actually being sure of what it wants to say, and obfuscating rather than clarifying its points in the name of “poetry” and “art,” neither of which it serves.

Goodman was already guilty of this in “Nixon in China,” but it’s more obvious in “Klinghoffer,” because the subject is more incendiary and the pacing much slower. You have plenty of time to notice, in other words, that the opera lacks a strong point of view. It throws out a lot of ideas and takes refuge behind the mantle of art to avoid actually thinking them through (the Palestinian scenes, in Tom Morris’s Met production, were a lot more pointed and incendiary than the Jewish ones). Sellars’s original production, indeed, aimed at a kind of abstraction, with singers in simple white garments; by contrast Morris, and his costume designer Laura Hopkins, offered 1980s-vintage tourist resort wear. The production even projects explanatory texts on the wall to clarify what actually happened in instances when the libretto’s “poetic” moments are opaque.

There are a number of reasons that people conceive of this work as anti-Semitic, but the loudest protesters seemed to focus on the most banal of them. The notion that we should prohibit all works of art that allow the bad guys a point of view would decimate the Western canon; while the idea that audiences might blindly go out and emulate the behavior they see on stage is a canard that I’ve heard applied to Wagner’s “Ring” with equal ludicrousness at least, I’ve not encountered any real-life cases of sibling incest following performances of “Die Walküre.”

Hundreds line up outside New York’s Metropolitan Opera on Monday to protest the opening of John Adams's opera "The Death of Klinghoffer." The opera and composer have faced accusations of antisemitism. (Video: Instagram/shaybramson)

Warts and all, “Klinghoffer” has survived for 23 years for a reason: it still represents a level of originality, certainly musically, that lifts it above much of the herd of carefully workshopped, safe contemporary American operas. And the Met certainly cast it well. Audience favorites, predictably, were Alan Opie, who was moving and crusty as Klinghoffer, and Michaela Martens, warm and deep-voiced as his wife, Marilyn, as well as Paulo Szot, the ship’s captain-cum-narrator, who had a wearyingly long part (Goodman’s characters never sing for three minutes when eight will do).

Given the tenor of the debate before the opening, being a dark-skinned singer playing a terrorist — Sean Panikkar, Ryan Speedo Green, Aubrey Allicock or Maya Lahyani — must have been a particularly daunting assignment, and all four of them excelled. Colorful in supporting roles were Maria Zifchak as the Swiss grandmother, Christopher Feigum as the first officer, and Theodora Hanslowe as the woman who stayed hidden in her cabin for the whole hijacking. The creators’ intended points of comic relief have, with time, been eliminated or toned down, and so it was with the single lighter moment, the bouncy aria for the British dancing girl (Kate Miller-Heidke), which Robertson gave a muted reading.

Banning “Klinghoffer” from the stage is not the right answer. Neither is celebrating it as a perfect work. Sadly, the debate surrounding this production has not left room for much middle ground between the “pro” of fully endorsing art’s right to say whatever it wants and the “con” of not allowing art unfettered access to the historical record, particularly if there are living relatives to consider (the Klinghoffer daughters have come out strongly against the opera, and wrote a statement that the Met printed in the program). Alas, neither side has emerged with much understanding of the other, and the martyrdom of Klinghoffer has blurred into the martyrdom of “Klinghoffer,” the opera. Which means that either you celebrate the Met or castigate the Met for putting it on, and that the company, despite putting its best foot forward, once again provides a polarizing example of opera’s distance from the city it hoped, with this production, to engage.