Here is what Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production of John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" does not do: Romanticize terrorists, justify extremism, celebrate violence or express anti-Semitism.
Here is what it does do: Explore the roots of a conflict that has shaped our era, demonstrate the common humanity of all those involved in it, condemn violence and shine a light on the everyday heroism of ordinary people.
The final opera in OTSL's season, seen at its opening Wednesday night, is also its artistic high point. Artistic director James Robinson shines in the contemporary repertoire; "Klinghoffer" is one of the best things he's done here. The production is moving, never mawkish.
It's based on the real-life 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, and their murder of a disabled Jewish passenger.
In form, "Klinghoffer" more closely resembles an oratorio than a traditional opera. Alice Goodman's libretto opens with the "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" and then moves to the "Chorus of Exiled Jews." Robinson uses the same symbols - stones, suitcases, a young boy - to express the colliding tragedies of the two peoples. The simplicity of every aspect of this production is much of what makes it so compelling.
So does the cast, a solid, well-matched group of singing actors. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby made a complete, expressive character of Marilyn Klinghoffer. She suffers from the colon cancer that will take her life a few months later, but she's more concerned for her husband than for herself. Brian Mulligan was a cranky, touching Leon Klinghoffer, in a well-sung, finely characterized performance.
Christopher Magiera (last year's Eugene Onegin) was strong as the Captain, a decent man placed in a nightmarish position; Magiera has a beautiful burnished baritone, and he made the most of his lyrical lines.
The quartet of terrorists were well cast. Former Gerdine Young Artist Aubrey Allicock was first appealing and then appalling as the poetic Mamoud, whose soliloquies provide much of the context for the opera. His comrades - tenor Matthew DiBattista as the murderous Molqi, baritone Paul La Rosa as the big-talking musclehead Rambo and current GYA Laura Wilde as Omar, so young his voice hasn't changed but anxious for martyrdom - made each character into a believable individual.
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer got to show off her dramatic chops in three very different roles and three fine performances. She was strongest in the first two: the sensible, decent Swiss Grandmother; the Austrian Woman, who locked herself in her cabin for the duration; and the British Dancer, who jittered around the stage. Two young supernumeraries - Avirath Dodabele as a Palestinian boy and Sam Pottinger as an Orthodox Jewish boy in kippah and side curls - were notable. Dodabele, in particular, has an appealing stage presence.
R. Robert Ainsley's chorus sang with exactitude and meaning; without their strong involvement, the performance would have been far less powerful. English diction specialist Erie Mills' work was apparent everywhere.
Allen Moyer's straightforward but ominous set uses dark riveted panels to suggest the Achille Lauro. James Schuette's essence-of-the-'80s costumes were well-nigh perfect. Christopher Akerlind's lighting was essential in making the mood.
The music in "Klinghoffer" varies from lyrical to edgy, mechanistic to ecstatic. Conductor Michael Christie brought out its beauty and kept everyone together. Mark Grey's sound design was inconsistent; there were balance problems, with some singers and sections overmiked, and others hard to hear.
‘The Death of Klinghoffer'
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
When: 8 p.m. June 17, 23, 25; 7 p.m. June 19; 1 p.m. June 21
Where: Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
How much: $25 to $120 for single tickets
More info: www.opera-stl.org or 314-961-0644