from the Greenwich Citizen, June 2009
Greenwich Music Festival presents opera suppressed by Nazis
By Linda Phillips
Robert Ainsley and Ted Huffman, Directors of the Greenwich Music Festival, now in its sixth season, never lull their audiences. They choose works and create performances that challenge, illuminate and expand musical experience, drawing the finest young musicians to Greenwich. The festival could be called the highest common denominator of artistic performance.
In a disturbing, thought-provoking choice of programming, the 2009 Festival presented Der Kaiser von Atlantis, a one-act opera - more aptly, a one-act theatre piece - that drew from the conventions of cabaret, opera, Chaplinesque make-up, mime, grotesque costuming, and superb musicality.
Composed in the Czech Terezin concentration camp in l943 by Viktor Ullman and librettist Pietr Kien, Der Kaiser is an allegory, entertainment, a satire, and a nightclub act all at once, resonating on many levels of the listeners' conscious and unconscious minds. Like myths and fairy tales, it holds universal truths, and its allusions are so numerous they were hard to capture in one hearing.
Terezín was a camp to which Hitler and the Nazis sent Jewish artists and musicians, and it fostered its own rich, creative life, as conductor Ainsley explained in his opening remarks.
The musical ensemble was unusual and was scored for the instruments, which included a banjo, then available to inmates. Uncategorizable, the music itself ranged from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (think Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), to klezmer music, to operatic arias. “A musical melange,” said Ainsley.
The starkness of the venue, the lower level of the St. Catherine of Sienna church, decorated with strings of Christmas lights, was a perfect choice, with its very spareness allowing thoughts of the camp.
Divided into four sections, the work began with a grotesquesly dressed Death (red military jacket and a women's nightgown) intoning “Hello, Hello” to the audience, then engaging in a dialogue with Harlekin, who was ruminating on a world turned upside down, fearing he would lose his clown persona, and trying to decide between life and suicide.
The acrobatic tenor Peter Tantsits, who has recently appeared at La Scala, displayed a wonderful voice and acting capabilities. In the role of Death, who becomes enraged when he hears that Kaiser Overall (think “uber alles”) has declared war on the entire world, Peter Tucker symbolically breaks his sword, meaning that he has taken a holiday, and that no one can die.
A splendid baritone, Tucker was powerful, and frightening in this role, as well as in that of the Loudspeaker (unseen narrator.)
Immediately, a titanic duel had been set up between the death giver and the life-taker.
In Scene II, the Emperor receives news that a hanged man is not dead, delivered by the scene-stealing Drummer Girl, wonderfully sung and acted by Katherine Pracht, again grotesquely costumed in high-heeled boots and arm extensions representing the grasp of the Emperor's plan.
Seeking to turn this to his advantage, the Emperor, played by the excellent Keith Phares, recently of the Metropolitan Opera, decides that he will “spin” this situation to his advantage. He announces that freedom from Death is his gift to the soldiers.
Two opposing soldiers, sung by tenor Matt Morgan and Australian soprano Rachel Durkin, meet on the battlefield, confront each other, but cannot kill. Instead, they fall in love, and he resists returning to war.
Scene III represented a tender, human moment in the struggle, and Morgan and Durkin's voices soared.
The fascinating orchestration in Scene IV, and the great poetry in the lyrics, found Death and the Emperor in a verbal joust, with Death insisting that he frees humans from pain and that it is not he who causes it.
“The greatest freedom” is the final lullaby the ensemble sings. The war ends, there is a meditation on suffering, then a profound aria by the Emperor revealing the madness of all dictators: That if he had only succeeded, all would have been paradisical. In the end, the characters strip off the white faces in which they've sung the opera, intone a plea for harmony, and end with the dictum, “never use the name Death in vain.”
The audience delivered cries of “Bravo!” for the ensemble and the orchestra.
A word about the choreography, staging, and costuming: Seldom have Greenwich audiences been treated to such imaginative, and sometimes puzzling, staging.
Giant television monitors translated the German libretto, and the actors became stagehands.
But true art does not always please. It can repel, attract, surprise, shock and change us.
That is the accomplishment of this production, which was at once absurd, grotesque, and brilliant, and was ultimately a celebration of the lives of its creators, who never heard it performed.
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Greenwich Citizen, June