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Where Death can no Longer Cry and Life no Longer Laugh

available at Amazon
V.Ullmann, Der Kaiser von Atlantis,
Zagrosek / Leipzig Gewandhaus /
H.Lippert, W.Berry, C.Oelze, M.Petzold, F.Mazura, M.Kraus, I.Vermillion et al.
Decca - Entartete Musik

Hitler as an opera’s protagonist would strike most culture and opera-loving people as a somewhat tasteless choice. But what if the opera had been composed in a concentration camp? Inexorably wedded to the circumstance of its creation, “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” – considered Viktor Ullmann’s masterpiece – is just that. A work of art, theater, and music created under circumstances that must seem unlikely or impossible to us. But Viktor Ullmann, “Director for Musical Leisure Activities” at Theresienstadt (Terezín) seemed to have taken his cynically titled position at the transit camp (like Bergen-Belsen one of the camps intended to deceive international observers about the true atrocities going on elsewhere) with some vigor and zeal. For two years – from September 1942 to October 1944 - it was, tragically ironic, the most productive time of his life. Then, on October 18th, 1944 his life was brought to an end in Auschwitz, only two days after being deported from Terezín.

The short one act opera “The Emperor of Atlantis” (also known as “Death Resigns” or “Death’s Refusal”) was created with librettist Peter Kien in the Winter of 1943/44 for seven characters or “Archetypes” and small orchestra. Rehearsals faltered when too many of the participants were either shipped off or became sick in early 1944. Later that year, the inmates managed to put together a dress rehearsal, after all. Not surprisingly to anyone who has seen or heard the opera, the efforts to avoid censorship through abstraction and symbolism in the opera could not have fooled even the densest SS Guard. With the blatant references to Hitler via “The Emperor” a.k.a. “Supreme General” – more than just a hint at “GröFaZ”(1) – the opera was deemed unacceptable, was banned, and never premiered. Only shortly thereafter – related to the production or not – the collaborators on this opera were shipped off to Auschwitz. The opera only survived because Viktor Ullmann handed off the score to his fellow inmate at Terezín, Emil Utitz, whose fate was more fortunate.

The Orchestra Jakobsplatz München, formed by young musicians of the Jewish community of Munich and beyond, performed that infrequently heard (though hardly neglected) work at the opening of the 21st Festival of Jewish Culture in Munich. After Philip Glass’ “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Vivaldis’ “Juditha Triumphans”, this was the third collaboration of the Orchestra and the Bavarian State Opera. And the involvement of one of the largest and most professional opera houses showed! I would not be surprised if, in turning the Jewish Community Center’s auditorium into a little opera house, twice as many technicians, artists, and stage hands than musicians were involved . (Markus Koch, direction; Iris Jedamski, stage; Michael Bauer, lighting.)

And since the State Opera also lent its singers to the effort, vocal contributions were extraordinary among all, though perhaps most noteworthy with Christian Miedl’s Emperor and Kevin Conners’ Harlequin.

But no matter the amount of effort, there is of course no way to perform this opera with even the slightest degree of ‘authenticity’. An authenticity that would not only demand the recreation of the ghastly and dire circumstances – but also the execution of a random 80 percent of audience and musicians after the performance. If ever there was a good argument against “Period Performances”…

available at Amazon
Estranged Passengers - In Search of Viktor Ullmann,
J.Conlon et al.
Delta Music

Viktor Ullmann’s life and work has been rescued from near total obscurity to relative prominence by this opera and performances of it that have increased appreciably since 1994, when Schott Publishing decided to make Ullmann’s work available in print. There are two recordings of it by now: Decca’s 1993 ‘luxurious’ version with a fine cast and full-size orchestra, part of the discontinued but sporadically reissued “Entartete Musik” edition, and a 1995 Czech release with a small orchestra (as indicated in the score) on STUDIO MATOUŠ MK. Washington National Symphony Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor Iván Fischer has just conducted an ‘prop-enhanced’ concert performance at the Budapest Mahlerfest. James Conlon has long championed it, too, and further contributed to the Ullmann reception with the DVD “Estranged Passengers - In Search Of Viktor Ullmann”. (The title is taken from Ullmann’s diary, written largely in verse; the DVD contains a documentary, an interview with Conlon, and a performance of Ullmann's orchestrated Fifth Piano Sonata.)

Just like the opera cannot be performed in an even remotely ‘authentic’ way, it cannot be separated from its story, either. Viewed and heard in isolation, it would merely be a stange opera, pleasantly short at under 50 minutes, influenced by Revue and Jazz (reminiscent of “Johnny spielt auf”), veering between the lyrical, the alienating, and the ugly. Emperor “Űberall” (invariably translated as “Emperor Overall” – though that’s all-too literal… “Emperor Everywhere” is more apt, as would be “Emperor Above All”, or “Emperor Omnipresent”) cruelly rules, fighting a war of “all against all”. Death, who feels co-opted into the Emperor’s schemes, decides to go on strike. As a result, people can still get shot, mutilated, and torn apart, but they can no longer die. The Emperor tries to use this to his advantage, promising his soldiers eternal life. But even with his propaganda tool, “The Drummer” (the beautifully acting and singing Stephanie Hampl), he cannot prevent more an more rebellions from springing up in response to the misery and suffering that is caused by the absence of death. The Emperor despairs and in a delirium he sees Death.

Death promises to resume his duties as long as the Emperor is willing to be the first to meet the “new” Death. Eventually he agrees – but not without prophesizing that his fall will hardly mean the end to violence. A chorale (a warped “A Mighty Fortress is our God”) praises Death as giving value to life and ends the opera. A “Speaker” (an imposing Andreas Kohn) announced the action and participants before the opera and serves as the communication manager for the Emperor. Harlequin (though looking a bit more like Pierrot in Claudia Gall’s costume) is a stand in for life and serves as a constant reminder of hope. A young soldier and a female colleague of his from the opposing army provide a romantic subplot in the third scene. They were sung by Michael McBride and Elif Aytekin who, if equipped with a more natural German, could have done more of the speaking parts – the same of which goes for Adrian Sâmpetrean’s otherwise striking Death.

The orchestra, led by their young and engaging founder Daniel Grossmann who displays a charmingly nervous confidence, did as well as might have been expected – playing the music which offers few ‘thankful’ parts to show off with, anyway, in a perfectly capable manner. As the Decca recording shows, a souped-up professional and polished orchestra can make the music sound much better. But if that is desirable during a live performance that wishes to touch upon the spirit of the opera and perhaps also the occasion of its composition and first rehearsals, is questionable.

“Der Kaiser von Atlantis” remains – beyond being embraced as exciting due to its history – a troublesome work that is, in every way, difficult to come to terms with. And perhaps that’s precisely what an opera like this, born under the circumstances as it was, precisely the right message it sends to us and reminds us of. In that sense the efforts of the Staatsoper, the Society for the Advancement of Jewish Culture and Tradition, and the Jakobsplatz Orchestra were well expended.

1 - The German mocking acronym for “Greatest General of all Times” denoting Hitler and ridiculing the Nazi’s penchant for acronyms – while the title itself, coined by General Fieldmarshall Wilhelm Keitel, was ‘bestowed’ upon Hitler in all seriousness.

All pictures courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

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