New Is Not Always Good!

 First, the very good news. John Adams’ opera „The Death of Klinghoffer“ at ENO is a remarkable work of art. The dramatic story about the 1985 capered cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinians, their selection of Brits, Americans and especially Jews, the eventual killing of wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer as a reprisal for not meeting their demand to free 50 Palestinian prisoners, and the dumping of his body overboard – all this comes to very sharp life in this opera. Adams stages this horror story as retrospective by survivors 20 years later and shines a very clear light on the origins of this horrible crime in the late 1940’s when Holocaust survivors came to Palestine and drove Palestinians from their homelands by turning the desert into fruitgardens. A very fitting and thoughtful staging with convincing set design supports this great musical presentation of a dark day in this ever-lasting conflict.

Most convincing, Adams’ short farewell of a Palestinian refugee mother to her soon-to-be murderous son whom she sends on his deadly mission. Excellent of voice and acting Clare Presland standing out from a very good cast. Most impressive also Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer and Jesse Kovarksky as the young Omar, part of the capering detail who is given the task to shoot the defenceless Klinghoffer, sung convincingly as the fatalistic victim – who had hoped for a relaxing holiday cruise in the Mediterranean. A good performance was also given by the ship’s captain and his first officer.  Baldur Brönnimann conducted a fine orchestra. Adams showed – as he had in Dr. Atomic which I heard a few years ago – that opera is still alive and that he masters an impressive musical language.


The bad news is Julia Weir’s “Miss Fortune” in Covent Garden, a co-production with Bregenz Festival where it was performed last year. A stupid story with no discernible message and a flat libretto, also by Ms. Weir. At first, I thought that this will be a welcome paraphrase of the financial crisis, since the opera opens with 2 extremely rich parents, the Fortunes, with their esoteric daughter, Miss Fortune, experiencing a stock market crash in which everybody else loses his fortune, except the Fortunes who abscond abroad where they have stashed their cash. Miss stays behind, in order to experience “real life”. She attempts several menial jobs (cleaner in an apparel sweatshop, salesperson in a kebab hut, ironing in a cleaning establishment), only to be thwarted – together with the shops – by Fate who accompanies her travails. In the end, she wins 100 million in a lottery, but gives it all away in favour of following the “young rich gentleman” who has been wooing her. Up to their joint leaving, one does not get a single impression that she even sees him – very unconvincing.

The only real personage who comes to life is the fantastically singing Mr. Fate, countertenor Andrew Watts, and also maybe the owner of the kebab stand which is destroyed by Fate’s companions, a breakdancing group. This feature has features in the advertising of the opera, but again, remains unconvincing, mainly because there is no appropriate music to their acrobatic gyrations. The music remains flat, the story is ludicrous and unconvincing, the staging spectacular – probably designed for the lake-stage in Bregenz, but looking gimmicky-for-gimmick’s sake. One outstanding feature, however, is the fabulous lighting design by Jens Kalman. The whole thing is not worth going, even less hearing.


Ely Cathedral, an architectural and historical marvel, frequently hosts Saturday evening concerts. I enjoyed one given by four choirs, two from Cambridge Colleges (Jesus College, Gonville and Caius College) and two from Ely, singing jointly and/or separately, mainly contemporary church music (exception Antonin Dvorak). Marvellous acoustics, a great venue, but ice-cold. In addition, the selection of psalms sung was not of the joyful kind, but very solemn. But it was definitely worth hearing and seeing.


My favourite Tricycle Theatre has put on another series of mini-plays, all dealing with various aspects of the nuclear bomb (“Blast 1 and Blast 2”). It is divided into two performances with 3-4 plays each. The plays all deal with The Bomb, but from very different angles, by different authors. This makes it most entertaining – and instructive. The first evening has a play on two refugees from Hitler’s empire who want to tell a UK parliamentary committee on a major mistake made by physicist Hahn’s calculations, with the effect that already a 15 kg bomb can wreak havoc – instead of the previously thought 1.5 tons. Another one deals with a dialogue between an Indian nuclear physicist and his super-gifted student an abstract nuclear ideas when a lady commissioner breaks in to tell them that they speed up their work so India can outran neighbour and foe Pakistan in the nuclear race – which the professor rejects. Another – grotesque – play deals with the originally small – nuclear club, fashioned like a British Gentlemen’s Club, into which more and more upstarts break into. A great idea is the attempt by a motley group of back-country Ukrainians to sell a nuclear warhead missile to either Chechnians or the US – which supported the ex-Soviet countries in preventing nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists.

The second “Blast” featured other great little plays; one involving two Iranian siblings, the brother working for the Islamic State Security, the sister visiting Iran from a nuclear research facility in the UK who get to fighting about their respective convictions: here the worry about Iran’s security, there the worry about the fate of the world. The last play was the best: in “The Letter of Last Resort”, playing in 2015, the newly installed female British prime minister who wants to personally write the condolence letter to the parents of killed UK soldiers rather than using a template, get instructed by her change advisor that she must pen the eponymous letter to the commander of the nuclear Trident submarine, locked in 2 safe deposit boxes, for the case that the UK (and part of the world) has been wiped out by a nuclear strike. Three options are presented: to retaliate (and annihilate the rest of the world), to do nothing, or to go to Australia and put the submarine at the disposal of the Aussie government. The prime minister – who seems personally leaning towards a pacifist solution, together with her advisor ponders the rationality of each of the options, with all their involved (absurd) incentive and security and masculinity (strike back!) implications. In the end, the solution is left open, or at least not completely clear, but she seems to eventually favour the strike-back solution. Very well played, very interesting ideas, the frightening development and diffusion of a weapon “designed never to be used” a real threat to the world.


A very convincing film is “Barbara”, a German film (Petzold) about the female medical doctor in 1980 East Germany, who is banished from Berlin (Charité) to a provincial hospital for requesting an exit permit. There she is confronted both by very human and sympathetic medical staff, but also to Stasi scrutiny, who burst into her flat, upend wardrobes and desks, even check her whole body (invasively) for hidden cash – which she actually received from her West German lover who manages twice to visit her. The inhuman treatment of a young girl who runs away from labor-camp type confinement and finds in Barbara her only trustworthy relation is contrasted with the story and budding love to the head doctor, who also is an informer for Stasi. In the end, the well-devised flight plan for Barbara (per one-man power-driven air mattress to Denmark) is turned by Barbara who wants to take the girl along into the salvation for the girl, whom she pushes on the boat instead of herself. An excellent, if slow, movie on the various survival and humanity-maintaining ways of East Germans in the face of a pervasive State Security (Stasi) which extends its very resource-intensive reach into the most private realms. – Shocking!


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