JOHN ADAMS'S new opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer," currently in its American premiere run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), confounds all expectations.Those expecting an opera in Adams's "Nixon in China" mode will find instead a dramatic oratorio that still carries the emotional and theatrical punch of great opera. Those expecting inflammatory politicizing will encounter a timeless discussion of the issues of life, death, martyrdom, and religion; those waiting for Adams to offer another one of his clearly minimalist-based scores will be treated to music that has made a great leap away from those frankly limiting roots. He has not altogether abandoned m inimalism, but has stretched beyond it to create a rich sonic and compositional tapestry of remarkable emotional impact. On the face of it, the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the despicable assassination of the wheelchair-bound passenger Leon Klinghoffer seem a pretty tawdry subject for an opera. Yet Adams, his librettist Alice Goodman, and director Peter Sellars had proved in "Nixon in China" that they could honestly look at controversial figures and find something provocative and often surprisingly human. "Klinghoffer" is a probing and compassionate exploration of the human condition as seen from various viewpoints: the four Palestinian hijackers, the ship's captain, several passengers, and the Klinghoffers. The work is punctuated by seven major choruses, much in the fashion of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," which Adams admits was very much an inspiration. It begins with a deceptively quiet chorus of Palestinians recalling their destroyed homeland and builds to a gut-wrenching orchestral roar of bestial rage around the words, "Our faith will take the stones he [Israel] broke and break his teeth." Nothing else in the Prologue or first act equals that level of brilliance, musically. Then again, the first act is really a preparation for the second act, which is a marvel of directorial imagination, musical inventiveness, and textual richness, all building toward the shattering finale of Marilyn Klinghoffer's lament - a raw and searing burst of outrage, pain, loss, and despair. Terrorists and politicians see the loss of a Leon Klinghoffer as either a necessary or lamentable impersonal statistic; a Marilyn Klinghoffer has lost her soul mate, and her world is shattered. Ms. Goodman's libretto gets a little dense, even obfuscated, in its attempt to communicate mythic profundities. But she is uncanny in her ability to evoke underlying emotions in nervous banter or chitchat, be it the silly British dancer, or Mrs. Klinghoffer, who chatters on about medical miracles in an attempt to cover her deep fear that all is not well with her now-missing husband. Adams picks up these undercurrents, and offsets rather than sets the words, to heighten the emotional mood. Sellars's contributions cannot be overpraised. In the past, he has tended to let his imagination run roughshod over his best inspirations. Here, he is able to sense when he is crossing over into the realm of excess, and step back. The staging, like the opera, is arrestingly abstract - no real-life events to re-create in the manner of "Nixon," no playlike plot to reinterpret as in his controversial Mozart trilogy stagings. His stagings of Bach cantatas have clearly prepared him for "Klinghoffer," particul arly in his use of motion to communicate emotion. Sellars's ability to exploit to theatrical advantage everything his artistic team has given him is demonstrated in how he uses every part of George Tsypin's complex scaffold set, in the way he inspires miraculous lighting effects from James Ingalls, and how choreographer Mark Morris's work fits effortlessly, for the most part, into Sellars's framework. Musically, the score was in the sure hands of conductor Kent Nagano, who clearly empathizes with Adams's muse, and who brought great passion to his performance with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra. The Concert Chorale of New York offered handsome work. In multiple roles, Thomas Young, Thomas Hammons, Janice Felty, and Eugene Perry performed admirably. James Maddalena made a sympathetic Captain, and Sheila Nadler a devastatingly fine Marilyn Klinghoffer. Nevertheless, it was Sanford Sylvan, Sellars's quintessential operatic performer, who offered the outstanding work of the evening. Is "Klinghoffer" a great opera? Perhaps not as great as "Nixon in China," which I find to be the most exciting new opera to come out of America in too long a time. (Why do our major houses continue to ignore it?) Nevertheless, it is a startling step forward for this increasingly bewitching composer, and a work of profound impact if audiences are willing to suspend their cherished preconceptions and really listen.
'The Death of Klinghoffer' continues at BAM through Sept. 13. It is scheduled for the Los Angeles Music Center in September 1992 and the San Francisco Opera in November 1992.