Death, Be Not Proud

Trouble at Sea: Sanford Sylvan as Leon Klinghoffer and Yvonne Howard as his wife, Marilyn.Photo: Courtesy of Blast Films/Channel Four

Apparently John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer has something to offend everyone. When it was new back in 1991, this quintessential CNN opera, based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, created a mild stir among those who perceived it as insufficiently hard on terrorism and more than a bit unfriendly to Jews. Since 9/11, the smoldering resentment has fairly exploded. The Boston Symphony hastily canceled a performance of concert excerpts. Musicologist Richard Taruskin, in an article in the New York Times, accused Adams of romanticizing terrorists and being un-American. The editor of England’s Opera magazine was appalled by Alice Goodman’s libretto, which he dismissed as “desperately naïve,” and even went so far as to say that the opera is “best left unperformed.” After seeing a production in Helsinki, one critic in the same journal hated the work so much that he declared it “an operatic corpse.”

I can’t say I disagree. Klinghoffer also irritated me in 1991, and even more so at the recent screening of Penny Woolcock’s film adaptation, shown as part of Lincoln Center’s celebration of Adams and his music. Leaving politics aside for the moment, what strikes me as most offensive about the work is its sheer ineptitude. Every important composer is entitled to write a stinker now and then, but Adams has surely produced a lulu with The Death of Klinghoffer. Goodman’s libretto is worse than naïve—it fails on just about every level. Her character portraits are cold and bloodless, the larger vision is prosy and constipated, and her self-conscious literary tone has the musty odor of a vanity-press poetry journal. No wonder Adams seems baffled trying to find music for this miserable text. All he has managed to produce is a hopelessly meandering, tensionless score that sounds like the most vapid New Age pap.

The Peter Sellars production that launched the opera was intentionally ritualistic and stately, reflecting, we were told, the work’s hieratic qualities and indebtedness to Bach’s Passions. Woolcock’s film, on the other hand, presents Klinghoffer as if it were some sort of a gritty overheated melodrama by Mascagni. I suppose this approach helps to demonize the Palestinian terrorists properly, but it is no more convincing than Sellars’s production—perhaps the opera really is unstageable. The score has been trimmed somewhat, but not enough, although the cast, led by Sanford Sylvan in the title role, is at least game under the composer’s baton. What is most amazing about Klinghoffer is that the Adams-Goodman-Sellars triumvirate that conceived it still doesn’t seem to have a clue as to why so many people continue to find this clumsy piece so intolerable. Before these disingenuous armchair liberals tackle another hot-button political topic, they might take a look at Verdi’s early operas and see how it should be done.

The most implausible classical CD to hit the best-seller charts in recent years, Morimur was probably bound to leap from laser disc to live performance sooner or later. Sure enough, this high-concept project involving the secret inner life of Bach’s D-minor unaccompanied Partita for Violin is now on a world tour that included a stop-off at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue as part of Lincoln Center’s “Bach Variations” series. And clearly the fascination hasn’t worn off, since the pews were filled with a rapt audience whose attention never wandered for 70 minutes.

For those who haven’t yet heard, Morimur posits the intriguing theory that Bach specifically intended the Partita, and especially the monumental Chaconne that concludes it, as a grieving tombeau for his wife, who died in 1720. Not only that, the music is chock-full of hidden musical references, four-part choral tunes relating to death and suffering that can be extracted and actually sung along with the Chaconne. And the truly adventurous, says the German musicologist Helga Thoene, who did the detective work on Morimur, can also discover cryptic numerological associations embedded in the music, derived from a gematric analysis of a Latin epitaph, popular in Bach’s day, that gives the project its title: “Ex Deo nascimur / In Christo morimur / Per spiritum Sanctum reviviscimus” (We are born from God / We die in Christ / We are reborn through the Holy Spirit).

Performed by violinist Christoph Poppen and four singers from the Hilliard Ensemble, the ECM recording of Morimur took off when it was released shortly after 9/11, and to everyone’s astonishment instantly hit the classical top-ten charts, which these days mostly measures crossover dreck with only a tenuous connection to serious music. That is the true miracle of Morimur, live and on disc. Even when the Chaconne is repeated with its tacked-on vocal subtext, the spare beauty it communicates is pure, ungimmicked Bach, which is surely what audiences are responding to so fervently. The added mystical message no doubt enhances the effect for those who choose to buy into it—Bach scholars are still arguing over Theone’s ingenious theories, which do contain some troubling inconsistencies—and for the true believers, Morimur appeared just when its eloquent spiritual uplift was badly needed.

The ECM recording continues to be a special experience, effectively reflecting the spirit of the occasion. Poppen’s performance of the Partita may be rather lean, grim, and gritty for some tastes, but it sounds appropriate in this context, as does the delicate fragility of the vocal threads woven by the four Hilliard Ensemble singers. An inevitable sequel has just appeared on ECM with the same artists: Ricercar, built around the six-part ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering. That score, in Anton Webern’s orchestration, frames the program, which also includes two Webern works originally for string quartet—an early piece from 1905 and Op. 5, both arranged for string orchestra—and, as the centerpiece, Bach’s Cantata No. 4, Christ Lag in Todesbanden. The cyclical concept that knits it all together is too complex to unravel here, but anyone who responds to Morimur is likely to find this provocative mix of Bach, Webern, and mysticism no less absorbing.

Classical Music Listings
Classical Music
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The Death of Klinghoffer
Film adaptation of the opera by John Adams. Directed by Penny Woolcock. At Lincoln Center.

Morimur and Ricercar
Recordings on ECM.

Death, Be Not Proud