The emperor of altantis, a review

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The emperor of altantis, a review
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I would like to strongly recommend to anyone who can, or knows anyone who can, to go to the English Touring Opera's production of The emperor of Atlantis, by Viktor Ullmann (it is touring around the country). I was lucky enough to see this opera the other night and it was one of the best opera/theatre productions I have ever seen.

Ullmann wrote the music for this opera whilst imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp/ghetto in 1943. Terezin was the model camp that the German bourgeoisie showed off to the world to prove how nice they were being to the Jews. They sent artists, intellectuals and internationally known people to this camp, along with older jews and those who had been decorated for service during WW1.

Ullmann and the librettist Peter Kien wrote the opera to be performed in the camp but it only got to dress rehersal because once the SS saw it they banned its production. Why Ullmann and Kien believed an opera that contains an aria where a soldiers chooses love over war and lays down his gun is hard to fathom but they did. And this reflects the deep humanity of this opera. The main characters of the opera are; death, Harlequin (representing life) and the emperor of Atlantis. The outline of the opera is that Death is feeling displaced by the mass slaughter that war has become, and when the Emperor declares total war of all against all Death goes on strike. Death only agrees to go back to work if the emperor agrees to be the first to die, which he does.

The opera is more than simply an thinly anti-narzi satire, which the programme notes say it is, it is about war generally, the suffering of humanity and a meditation on death. The Emperor in part represents german imperialism and imperialism generally, however at the end of the opera he singing an beautiful aria about how after this war other wars will continue and his longing for a better world (, this is not the production i saw). There is not simple black and white moralism but a profoundly moving engagement with the horror that was engulfing the world and the terrible fate that Ullamann and Kien know awaited them (both died in Auschwitz).

The production is movingly set against a background of the ghetto, and brings together elements of caberet, surrealism, and expressionism. The orchestra is small but this fits with the nature of the piece. The performances and singing are excellent.

The emotional impact of the opera is intensified by the addition of Bach's Christ Lag in Todesbanden Cantata at the beginning of the opera. This cantata about death is sung by 4 singers dressed as people being brought to the ghetto who are illuminated as a small scared group on the stage. The singing of this cantata is profoundly moving and brilliantly performed.

The same small group close the opera by singing a chorale simply in their underway awaiting their deaths.

The production I saw was divided into two parts, with the first part being a performance of a song cycle  by Helen Chadwick. The songs were based on poems written children caugth up in the Balkans war of the 1990s and they were terribly moving, especially because they were performed by children from local schools.