Translated Onto the Screen, An Opera Comes Into Its Own

In the age of reality TV, can reality opera be far behind? Penny Woolcock, a British filmmaker, has adapted for the screen John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer , an opera whose subject-Islamic terrorism-couldn’t be more “reality.” I recently saw the film at the Walter Reade Theater, where it was shown for one night as part of a Lincoln Center festival devoted to Mr. Adams, and came away convinced that never has a movie derived from an opera been more deserving of the widest general release.

The business of putting opera on film has a long and largely unsatisfactory history. Most of the operas transferred to video or DVD may be valuable as evidence of a particular production or a particular singer’s arsenal of skills (to appreciate how Teresa Stratas bewitched audiences with her eyes as much as her voice, you need only look at her close-ups in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1982 film of La Traviata ). But with rare exception, these hybrids fall uneasily into the cracks, failing to achieve either the immediacy of live opera or the expansiveness of film. The exceptions that come readily to mind are Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute (1975), which emphasized the staginess of an actual performance in the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, and Francesco Rosi’s Carmen (1984), which opened up the Bizet opera into cinematic spectacle.

Ms. Woolcock, who has made boundary-pushing documentaries in the U.K. for BBC 2 and Channel 4, joins these masters by transforming an ambitious, problematic piece of musical theater into a film whose power derives in equal measure from the urgency of current events, the extravagant energy of the soundtrack, and an ingenious mixture of documentary footage and naturalistic staging. This is one filmed opera that is riveting even if your ears are blocked. Unblock them, and it’s more riveting.

I attended the American premiere of Klinghoffer , which took place in 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music not long after the end of the first Gulf War, and I approached this revival with trepidation. Mr. Adams’ in-your-face musical style, which incorporates revved-up pulsations with starry-eyed lyricism, was perfectly suited to the hijacking in October 1985 of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, during which a disabled Jewish-American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed and thrown overboard in his wheelchair. On a purely musical level, the opera, in its wealth of resources, represented a considerable advancement over Mr. Adams’ previous ripped-from-the-headlines piece, Nixon in China , whose tone was more detached. Nevertheless, the premiere was not a success. Coming so soon after the events in Kuwait and Iraq, the whole enterprise, as directed with pasteboard panache by Peter Sellars, seemed artificially lurid. And the libretto, by Alice Goodman, who had collaborated with Mr. Adams on Nixon , seemed at once highfalutin’ and borderline anti-Semitic. What was one to make of a chorus of exiled Jews singing lines like “O Daughter of Zion, when you lay upon my breast I was like a soldier who lies beneath the earth of his homeland, resolved”? Or, as one of the terrorists sang, “America is one big Jew”?

But film, with its power to travel freely in time and space, can do much to smooth over such sticky moments, and Ms. Woolcock, who had a roving camera, archival material and real-life settings at her disposal (the rocky terrain of Malta stands in for Palestine), greatly enriches matters by letting us hear the exiled Jews against post-Holocaust footage of the refugees’ arrival in Israel, and by showing the embittered terrorists brandishing their weapons on the decks of an actual luxury ship in the Mediterranean.

The filmmakers have assembled a cast of singing actors who are capable of both delivering Mr. Adams’ lengthy monologues with fearless intensity, and delineating the characters with dramatic realism. The camera reveals the sweet dignity of Sandford Sylvan’s Klinghoffer with greater poignancy than I remembered from the staged production, and it gives psychological focus to the fierce warmth of Yvonne Howard’s Marilyn Klinghoffer and the benumbed stalwartness of Christopher Maltman’s Captain. Adding greatly to the verisimilitude is Ms. Woolcock’s decision to have the performers-with the exception of the offscreen choruses-do most of their singing in front of the camera. (The orchestral score, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Mr. Adams, was recorded separately.) The music emerges not as a soundtrack, but as the characters’ thoughts and actions, never more effectively than in the sequence of Klinghoffer’s drowning, during which Mr. Sylvan sings a serenely beautiful aria, which begins “May the Lord God / And his creation / Be magnified / In dissolution,” while his corpse descends with eerie majesty to the bottom of the sea.

At its American premiere, The Death of Klinghoffer’s sympathy for the Palestinian terrorists was bitterly controversial-and that, I suspect, prevented the opera’s revival onstage. Earlier this month The New York Times felt obliged to devote a Critic’s Notebook to the work’s historical underpinnings: Edward Rothstein faulted the film for floating the “grotesque and mistaken” notion that, in the founding of Israel, Jewish refugees were guilty of doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis had done to them. Like too much else about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the charge is wildly overblown. Although the film does contain a painful sequence showing armed refugees violently expelling Palestinians from their village-a scene grounded in historical reality-it does not try to go into the immensely complicated events that resulted in the Palestinians’ loss of their homeland during the founding of Israel.

Nor should it. Klinghoffer is, after all, an opera, not a history lesson. The film’s single most powerful element is its depiction of the hijackers as terrifyingly human-four men, as filled with confusion and bravado as they are with rage, who precipitate a calamity which they, ultimately, cannot control. (They are vividly portrayed by Tom Randle, Kamel Boutros, Leigh Melrose and Emil Marwa.) As the opera’s creators have maintained over the years, their goal was not to take sides, but to present the appalling events of October 1985 with compassion for everyone who had the bad luck to be on board during that dreadful cruise. If their aim wasn’t entirely clear in the stage version of Klinghoffer , it is now inescapable.

Translated Onto the Screen, An Opera Comes Into Its Own