Police barricades surrounded the plaza at Lincoln Center, helicopters buzzed overhead and several hundred protesters, at one point led by former mayor Rudy Giuliani, denounced the Metropolitan Opera on Monday evening for presenting The Death Of Klinghoffer. Brandishing placards that read “Shame On Peter Gelb” — a reference to the Met’s general manager — and “The Met Opera Glorifies Terrorism,” the marchers sang “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, and listened to speeches attacking the opera about the 1985 murder of an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish man by Palestinian terrorists who had taken over the Achille Lauro cruise ship.
Addressing the crowd, Giuliani charged composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman with presenting “a distorted view of history.” Earlier in the day, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pointedly referred to the ex-mayor and sometime presidential candidate’s penchant for politicizing matters of art, saying Giuliani had a “history of challenging cultural institutions when he disagreed with their content” and adding, “I don’t think that’s the American way. I think the American way is to respect freedom of speech. Simple as that.”
Inside the opera house, security was tight but not intrusive and the performance began about 10 minutes late. Near the end of the first act, shouts of “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!” echoed through the house. Act II was more briefly interrupted following a scene scene that showed a stylized account of the murder, when a patron shouted an obscenity and stormed out (missing, as it happened, a second, more realistic treatment of the horrific act).
Mostly, however, conductor David Robertson led a deeply felt, movingly nuanced account of a score that is by turns repetitive, heavy-handed and, not incidentally, frequently inspired. This was my third exposure to this opera and the first full staging (it’s a co-production with the English National Opera), sensitively staged by director Tom Morris. Tom Pye’s set, incorporating elements of both the cruise ship and the unforgiving Middle East landscape, was evocatively lit by Jean Kalman, with handsome projections by Finn Ross and a vivid array of clothes by Laura Hopkins.
The major accomplishment of this powerful, mesmerizing production led by Paulo Szot as the captain, Sean Panikkar as the leader of the terrorists and, especially, Alan Opie and Michaela Martens as the Klinghoffers, is to effectively dismantle the suggestion that the work is anti-Jewish and trivializes a brutal act.
In word and melodic line, the Leon Klinghoffer sung by Opie is at once heroic and fully human. Critics of the opera (including Klinghoffer’s daughters, who condemn it in a manifesto right there in the Met playbill) confuse contextualization — which the work unashamedly if perhaps naively does — with moral equivalency, which it does not. The Death Of Klinghoffer may make demands on some listeners’ attention, but it is a moral, and, yes, poignant, work of serious intent.
The opening night audience rewarded cast, conductor, composer and other members of the team with rousing and extended applause. Unlike most of the protesters, they had earned the right by actually having seen the thing.