It wasn't on a scale with the riotous premiere of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," but the first Metropolitan Opera performance of "The Death of Klinghoffer," the controversial work by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman about the 1985 hijacking of the ship Achille Lauro, was as unconventional as expected.
Opera-goers arriving at Lincoln Center Monday night had to maneuver around police barricades to get to the theater. They could hear shouts and speeches by protesters gathered across the street to denounce everything about a piece of music theater relatively few people have actually experienced.
The chief charges: The opera is anti-Semitic and sympathetic to terrorists; it's disrespectful to the memory of Leon Klinghoffer, the wheelchair-bound passenger aboard the Achille Lauro who was murdered by the Palestinian hijackers, his body thrown overboard.
The anger about the opera, which has been growing ever since the Met decided to stage the 1991 work, kept getting noisier as the opening approached. Among the protesters Monday, demanding that the company cancel the production, was former New York mayor and longtime operaphile Rudolph Giuliani.
Months ago, Met general manager Peter Gelb agreed to cancel the scheduled global HD broadcast of the opera as a compromise with disgruntled factions. That didn't satisfy them, and only sparked a new controversy -- the charge of censorship. (The most odious censorship is the kind imposed by governments, of course. The Met can obviously do as it pleases.)
Why all this commotion now? The incidents portrayed in the opera happened almost 30 years ago. "The Death of Klinghoffer" has been produced in about two dozen places since 1991, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with little or no fuss. Bringing it to the exalted Met apparently was a step too far for some, especially now, with nerves on edge over new waves of terrorism and anti-Semitism.
The Met's ad campaign for "Klinghoffer" sensibly urged: "See it first. Then decide."
Several folks chose another approach: See it, but also shout out judgments even before the first note could sound, and shout some more periodically during the first performance.
The most prolonged outburst came from a man loudly repeating the phrase, "The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven." Conductor David Robertson and the cast took that and other disturbances in stride.
After Act 1, as the house lights came on, a voice from a balcony castigated the audience for attending such -- well, let's just say the language wasn't polite.
(There were silent acts of protest, too. I spotted a man with a Star of David pinned to his jacket. And one of the most eloquent objections could be read in the Met's own program book, a commentary from the Klinghoffer's daughters outlining why they believe this opera "rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father." You can't say this company has not tried to be fair.)
I was expecting more trouble in Act 2. Security folks were, too. A couple of them were waiting for a woman in the row in front of me who had been a considerable nuisance earlier, but she did not return after intermission.
Act 2 had only a tiny bit of protest that quickly petered out. The protesters were clearly outnumbered. It was not until Adams took a curtain call that any discord could again be heard, but boos were easily drowned out by the enthusiastic, sustained ovation.
Monday’s volatile performance may not change anyone's mind about the work, pro or con, but it will likely keep the conversation going. Not a bad thing. That's what art can do, should do.
When all was sung and shouted, this staging of "Klinghoffer," a co-production with English National Opera, affirmed the fundamental power and often subtle beauty of Adams' music. It also affirmed the troubling aspects of Goodman's libretto.
This isn't an anti-Semitic opera, but it's often an insensitive one.
Those so quick to mock the protesters must not have tried very hard to understand how and why some of the text could hurt and enrage.
Those who point out how noble and heart-wrenching the character of Marilyn Klinghoffer is at the opera's conclusion -- and she is definitely that -- don't seem to have considered the way she is made to seem rather mundane earlier. Is it really necessary to have Marilyn refer to the hijacking ordeal as a "mishegas"?
No wonder some people bristle when, by contrast, one of the terrorists gets to sing beautifully about the appeal of hearing old songs on the radio.
Other moments in the opera give one pause. One example: A passenger who gets a giddy scene to describe how nice a hijacker was. It's jarring and unnecessary, musically and theatrically. It also feels, somehow, almost insulting.
Having admired "Klinghoffer" on recording, without finding the libretto so problematic, I was surprised on Monday by how often some dialogue made me squirm in the context of a staged performance. Not the vile anti-Jewish rants by the terrorists -- those have to be there, have to sting, and, in the age of ISIS, are freshly relevant, freshly repellent -- but the way the opera seems to list to one side.
It is going against the vein of enlightened opinion, I know, to suggest any artistic imbalance in "Klinghoffer." But consider the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians at the opera's start. There's a richly evocative text to lament all the ills inflicted on them by Israel, the lines set to some of Adams' most poignant, affecting music.
The Chorus of Exiled Jews that follows comes across as more opaque, conveying relatively little of what a homeland means. (Goodman's wordy, heavy text is the chief problem here, as in so many other passages in the opera.)
Director Tom Morris' sensitive staging of those scenes helped to even things out visually. Choristers removed Arab garb to become Israeli characters, a quick and significant way to underline how similarly both peoples are forever tied to one small slice of earth.
I also liked how various dates, from 1948 to 2014, kept flashing onto the set during these passages, reiterating how the conflict remains as far from resolution as ever.
Whatever else it may be, this is most definitely not an opera that in any way justifies terrorism. That charge by its detractors will not stand. Murderers don't get turned into heroes just because they are shown to be human beings; "In Cold Blood" made that point a long time ago.
Whether or not "Klinghoffer" is a towering operatic masterpiece will be settled more by time than by impassioned arguments swirling now. (My perhaps heretical view is that it's a great work, but a little over-padded, often more oratorio than opera, not always musically or dramatically compelling.)
The Met production seems intent on justifying the label "CNN opera" that has been pinned to "Klinghoffer," as to Adams' "Nixon in China." News bites noting the time and date of various actions are projected on the set throughout, ultimately detracting from a work not meant to be literal recreation. (Additional historical information about the Achille Lauro is projected before and after the performance.)
Still, the staging -- designed by Tom Pye, costumed by Laura Hopkins, lit by Jean Kalman and enhanced by Finn Ross' video work -- certainly provides an absorbing, sometimes mesmerizing way to experience "Klinghoffer."
On Monday, in the title role, Alan Opie used his dark baritone to keen effect and gave the character tremendous dignity in the scene where Klinghoffer challenges the terrorists and their ideals, an emotional high point of the opera. Opie's rich portrayal made the murder, depicted with uncomfortable realism, all the more wrenching.
Michaela Martens likewise impressed greatly as Marilyn Klinghoffer, in voice as much as gesture. Paulo Szot was in compelling form as the conflicted Captain.
The terrorists were vividly portrayed by Sean Panikkar (Molqui), Aubrey Allicock (Mamoud), Ryan Speedo Green (Rambo) and Jesse Kovarsky (Omar).
In one of the most memorable moments, the hijackers disembarked from the set and stepped down into the house to walk all the way up the long aisle and out of the theater. You could almost hear everyone take a deep breath as this bold, brilliant bit of theater played out. Even the dissenters left in the audience must have been momentarily stunned.
The chorus offered superb work, vocally and dramatically. The Met's famed orchestra, as usual, was in brilliant, deeply expressive form, conducted with masterful nuance by Robertson.
One of most chilling moments in the opera is an exchange between the Captain and the seemingly sensitive, rational Mamoud in Act 1. The Captain suggests that there could be peace if only Mamoud would just talk with his enemies.
"The day that I and my enemy sit peacefully, each putting his case and working towards peace, that day our hope dies and I shall die, too," Mamoud sings.
That such a sentiment remains alive and well today makes "The Death of Klinghoffer" all the more tragic.