Making a film of an opera rather than filming an opera involves interesting choices and one of the strengths of the DVD of Penny Woolcock’s film of John Adams’ and Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer is that includes 47 minutes of Woolcock, Adams and others discussing just how one takes a rather abstractly staged opera (the original staging was, inevitably, by Peter Sellars) and turn it into an essentially naturalistic film. Of course, naturalism will only go so far with opera but this goes a long way in that direction. The soloists are filmed mainly on location and they sing to the camera. The choruses, mainly backed by documentary footage, and the orchestra were recorded in the studio but the actors sing ‘live’. The one concession to “being operatic” is having a mezzo voice one of the Palestinians though he is played by a male actor.
I haven’t seen the piece on stage but I can imagine how Sellars would treat it and I imagine the emotional effect is very different from the film. The key thing is the choruses. Here we get the films take on the Israeli/Palestinia issue and it’s incredibly bleak. The footage shows Jews clearing Arabs from their homes in 1948, it shows horrific scenes from the Holocaust and from Sabra and Chatila. It shows Arab children stoning Israeli soldiers and them firing live ammunition in response. It all rather drowns out Alice Goodman’s poetry and shows a world where there is not the slightest chance for peace and reconciliation.
That’s the bleak framing for the story of four frightened boys who accidentally hijack a cruise liner and kill an elderly Jew in a wheelchair. In the frame Woolcock provides it has to be what it is; brutal, pointless and rather pathetic. The closest the film has to a hero is the captain of the Achille Lauro, beautifully sung and well acted by Chris Maltman, but even his considerable achievement of saving all but one of his passengers is morally undermined by the (necessary?) deception of Marilyn Klinghoffer. Other notable performances come from Tom Randle as the leader of the hijackers and from Sanford Sylvan and Yvonne Howard as the Klinghoffers. John Adams’ excellent, and rather typical score, is well played by the London Sympony Orchestra and chorus under the composer’s baton.
Woolcock’s direction of the live scenes is very effective. She makes good use of the various opportunities offered by the levels of a ship and there’s a lot of rather nervous, gratuitous brutality. The DVD captures everything well and the Dolby surround sound is pretty decent though with a tendency for ambient effects to almost drown the music. This is very much a film and an action film at that.