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Propulsive Screen Adaptation of a Politically Charged Opera With Multiple Agendas
Director Penny Woolcock deserves an immense amount of credit for providing a vibrant, emotionally expansive if not altogether dramatically effective 2003 screen translation of what was likely the last decade's most controversial opera. What began as an elaborate oratorio in 1991 was renowned composer John Adams' highly emotional "The Death of Klinghoffer", a controversial work with even greater political and emotional resonance post-9/11. The story concerns itself with the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front. It is related in a series of arias and recitatives by critical participants in the situation - the ship's captain and first officer; the four terrorists; and key passengers who were held captive over three days, in particular, the Klinghoffers who were celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary.
Adams' familiar post-minimalist music turns out to be surprisingly compatible with the true-life story, as the propulsive vocal parts blend well with Alice Goodman's politically charged libretto. Sung off-screen to vivid montages, the beautiful choruses provide effective bridges and a broader context to the immediate drama of the opera, an aspect that was likely left quite abstract when sung onstage. The other powerful dimension Woolcock brings to this adaptation is the use of real locations and archived footage to make relevant the opera's overall abstraction to the viewer. This is a brave move since the political situation suddenly becomes actualized with the film. As it turns out, it is a dramatically smart move given that Woolcock has a strong cinematic sense of the story, for instance, she apparently cut twenty minutes of the music to make the story flow better, repositions powerful solo arias to enhance the characters' interactions, and adds often traumatizing historical footage and faux-news reports to give the story even greater realism. Solely from that standpoint, this may be the best screen adaptation of a major opera I have ever seen.
The biggest challenge of this production, however, is Goodman's libretto, which seems intent on supporting both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, the opera takes the bold step of putting Israelis and Nazis on the same plain by comparing images of a post-Holocaust concentration camp with those of a mass grave from the 1982 slaughter at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. In making such an exerted effort to share the motivation of the terrorists as well as the suffering of the crew and passengers, the drama becomes somewhat diluted by the multiple perspectives. By contrast, look at Paul Greengrass' recent "United 93" for a successful example of shifting varying viewpoints without losing the overall dramatic momentum. Some contend that the opera takes discernible political sides, though I think it's a mistake to brand the work as purely pro-Palestinian since the Klinghoffers are portrayed sympathetically if rather one-dimensionally as people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In particular, the execution of husband Leon, paralyzed from a stroke and wheelchair-bound, is shown shockingly as the act of a thug more than that of a political terrorist.
Fortunately, Woolcock has recruited world-class singers who are able to tone down their singing for the cameras. The standouts are baritone Christopher Maltman as the conflicted captain; fellow baritone Leigh Melrose, who makes the macho posturing of the aptly named terrorist, "Rambo", feel palpable; and in the film's only comic moment, soprano Kirsten Blasé, who makes her cowering showgirl a convincing media whore. Surprisingly, the Klinghoffers are not given arias to sing until near the end, but mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard is dynamic as Marilyn especially as she confronts the captain. Baritone Sanford Sylvan, a familiar Adams regular who played Chou En-Lai in "Nixon in China", has one powerful aria sung as a voice-over to an extended, haunting image of his dead body sinking deeper into the ocean. In another interesting voice-over done to accommodate the original opera's doubling of roles, a non-singing actor, Emil Marwa, plays the most vulnerable terrorist, Omar, while mezzo Susan Bickley sings his inner thoughts. The 2003 DVD has a surprising number of extras for an opera production, including a commentary track from Woolcock and various cast members. The best extra is an interesting making-of documentary, "Filming 'The Death of Klinghoffer'", which includes tandem interviews with Adams and Woolcock and goes into the major aspects of putting the challenging production together.
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