It was not, perhaps, the most fortuitous timing. The coincidence of Muhammad “Abu” Abbas, the Palestinian who engineered the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, being captured by American troops in Baghdad in mid-April and the debut of a new film version of John Adams’ opera about the hijacking, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” is not the sort of publicity-grabbing confluence of events that a major arts organization like Lincoln Center usually seeks.
Of course, an event as complex and ambitious as the three-month-long, 10-event tribute to Adams, of which the film is a part, has been years in the planning. One of the greatest living American composers, Adams is certainly worthy of a retrospective that involves such figures as Dawn Upshaw, Emanuel Ax, the London Sinfonietta, Peter Martins and the New York Ballet.
Still, given the original controversy surrounding “The Death of Klinghoffer,” one suspects that the organizers of the event would have been happier if Abbas had chosen to resurface a month or two after the May 13 New York premiere of the film, directed by Penny Woolcock. As it is, the scrutiny to which the film will be subjected will probably equal or surpass that accorded the original production of the opera in 1991 as Italian, Palestinian and American diplomats argued over Abbas’ future.
The general consensus of reviewers when the opera premiered a dozen years ago was that the first act, the back story of the participants and the events leading up to and including the actual seizure of the boat, was muddled and bland, while the second act, with its lengthy passages of oratory, was intermittently powerful.
The new film version does little to change that judgment. Alice Goodman’s libretto, which bends over backwards to the point of scoliosis in its efforts to give voice to all sides, is verbose and Latinate, entirely to the detriment of the music and its singability. As a result, the words are frequently incomprehensible. However, given how much bad “poetic” writing the libretto contains, this isn’t a great loss.
Adams’ music itself is often powerful but more often bombastic, yet there are moments of great beauty, as in the somber yet strangely peaceful music that accompanies the dead Leon Klinghoffer’s solitary body floating in the sea. But too often Adams’ writing feels like a melange of imitations — faux minimalism, faux pop, faux neo-Romanticism.
Surprisingly enough, it is Woolcock’s directorial hand that gives this version of “The Death of Klinghoffer” some artistic unity, albeit not always to the film/opera’s advantage. The opening choral passages, from the points of view of Palestinians being driven from their homes in 1948 and Jews being tormented by the Nazis a few years earlier, are now rendered all the more vivid by Woolcock’s deft combination of archival and staged footage.
For someone whose background is in BBC-type art films, she is remarkably good at staging physical action, and these scenes are among the most effective in the film. Yet that same skill tends to undercut the music badly when the hijacking itself takes place; we are too preoccupied with the where-the-heck-is-Bruce-Willis-when-you-need-him pyrotechnics of terrorists shoving tourists to even listen to Adams’s clanging chords.
Woolcock also manages to finesse the usual pitfall of filmed opera, close-ups of singers with their mouths agape down to their tonsils. In fact, several of the performances, notably Christopher Maltmann as the ship’s captain and Kamel Boutros as the most reasonable of the hijackers, would stand nicely in any film.
On another level, Woolcock’s skill begs a larger moral question, one the opera, whatever else its failings, couldn’t help but raise. Adams and Goodman chose to allow their characters to speak for themselves without editorial comment. For the most part, even the music itself neither supports nor undermines the point of view of the singer/speaker.
But Woolcock’s creative back story throws moral sympathy around like confetti and, given that one of the biggest flaws in the opera is that Leon and Sylvia Klinghoffer barely exist as characters with an inner life, we are inadvertently encouraged to look past an act of completely unprovoked murder committed against an elderly man in a wheelchair, a vicious and stupid crime, in order to find an excuse rather than an explanation.
Whatever the final disposition of Muhammad Abbas, one hopes the authorities don’t make the same mistake.
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“The Death of Klinghoffer” will have its New York premiere at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 13, at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at the Alice Tully Hall box office, by phone at (212) 721-6500, or at the Lincoln Center Web site, www.lincolncenter.org.