Ullmann, Der Kaiser von Atlantis

On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I attended a performance of Viktor Ullmann‘s Kaiser von Atlantis at the Vienna Chamber Opera.

Ullmann wrote the opera in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, a Nazi propaganda site where the Germans gathered Jewish cultural elites (mostly from the former Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia) to show the Red Cross and visiting dignitaries how well they were treating Jews despite wartime conditions.  Having served that purpose, the Germans deported the prisoners to Auschwitz in late 1944, where they murdered most of them – including Ullmann – immediately upon arrival.

Despite the difficult circumstances, the inmates in Theresienstadt enjoyed a brief cultural respite on their way to mass death.  Their minds focussed on new compositions, many of which survived liquidation in the camp library.  They wrote for the musical forces available, using odd instrumentations and limited-sized productions.  But this inpiration produced compelling theater.

The Vienna Chamber Opera succeeded in giving this peculiar piece a dignified staging.  This was actually my first time in the theater – I’ve known about this small house embedded on an alleyway in the First District for many years but for some reason never attended anything.  When booking the ticket on-line, I realized that it is run as a satellite by the Theater an der Wien in the Sixth District, my city’s third – and most “creative” – opera house (“creative” not necessarily being a good thing with opera, as it is often infected by obnoxious self-important German directors who show disdain for operas they stage, one reason I have still never attended a performance in the historic Theater an der Wien).  Thankfully, the people responsible for this production allowed the little opera  to speak for itself.

Infused with dark humor, the opera tells the story of the elusive Emperor Overall of Atlantis, who has declared total war until everyone is dead.  This megalomania so offends, that Death himself goes on strike.  With Death refusing to work, no one can die, in war, by execution, by disease… which creates its own illogic.  The Emperor attempts to use this as propaganda, that he is responsible for eternal life, while continuing to wage war. This farce becomes untenable, until he has to beg Death to return to work.  Death agrees, so long as the Emperor is the first victim.  The population greets Death as redemption.

The opera’s text and music were infused with German and central European literary and musical tradition, with word and note play and explicit and implicit references to poets and composers.  The audience (had it ever been performed in Theresienstadt – it was not, and ultimately was not performed for the first time until 1975) would have understood the references, and would have felt that the plot personally affected them, as they lived out their final days awaiting their own murders in a concentration camp set up as a stage for Nazi propaganda.

Obviously a plot like this (and a cast of only six singers) does not call for an elaborate staging (and they would have had limited sets in Theresienstadt anyway).  The staging in the Vienna Chamber Opera thus remained simple, but with heavy use of distorted images through film or props (including a large – dead – tree removed at the beginning, with the resulting hole in the ground filled in by the characters during the opera, suddenly lowering down from heaven at the end and being replanted – still dead – in the gound).  Obviously this was more elaborate than anything they could have produced in Theresienstadt, but it never overdid it and it let the music and text speak for themselves.  While the images provoked by the staging are hard to convey out of context, in context they worked as a unified whole.

The cast was uniformly excellent.  The Chamber Opera naturally has a small theater, so the singers do not need to have overwhelming voices, but they nevertheless carried out their roles with force and conviction.  Special mention must go to the baritone who portrayed the central character, the Emperor Overall, Matthias Helm, who was not supposed to be here.  The person advertised for the title role came down with a massive flu and was home in bed.  This opera, only having a limited run of seven evenings over four weeks, had no understudy and almost no one is familiar with the parts because it is rarely performed.  So they almost canceled… but this being Austria they searched out recent performances and found someone nearby who had taken the role to acclaim.  Helm spent the entire day rehearsing this production, and gave a convincing reading.  The Vienna Chamber Orchestra sounded clear and handled the sometimes difficult music with ease under conductor Julien Vanhoutte.

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