from the Opera (UK), November 2009
Composed in the Terezin concentration camp in 1943, Viktor Ullman's one-act opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis was meant to be performed by the camp's prisoners. That was not to happen—the Nazis saw in it a parody of their regime and quickly suppressed it during the dress-rehearsal stage—but history has taken up the slack. Over the past 20 years, Der Kaiser von Atlantis has received numerous productions all over the world, as well as several recordings. It's a lovely, eclectic little gem of a work, and it deserves all the belated attention.
The Greenwich Music Festival made it the centrepiece of its 2009 season, which bore the theme 'Out of Darkness: The Music of Terezin'. With its small cast of six and orchestration for 16, Der Kaiser von Atlantis lends itself handily to the limited resources of chamber-opera companies and small music festivals. This production, engagingly directed by the festival's artistic director Ted Huffman with Zack Winokur as choreographer and co-director, beautifully caught the spirit of the original conception. Performed in the 200-seat theatre of St Catherine of Siena Church (June 10), it gave a suggestion of how the opera might have looked had it actually received a staging at Terezin. Marcus Doshi's scenery amounted to little more than a desk, a few chairs, and a white backdrop which served as a screen for numerous striking silhouette tableaux (achieved with evocative lighting, also designed by Doshi). Paul Carey's costumes did not fall prey to stylish contemporary anachronism; instead they paid homage to the era while simultaneously giving the impression of having been thrown together from the scraps of clothing that Terezin's prisoners might have had on hand.
Singing in German, with English translations projected on either side of the stage, the cast proved a tightly-knit ensemble of musical actors. Jeffrey Tucker played both Death and the Loudspeaker (actually a kind of narrator), as well as several deftly-characterized bit parts. Each of these received specific recalibration of his sonorous bass, and benefited from his lively stage presence and near-flawless German, particularly in extended Sprechstimme passages. Katherine Pracht wielded a mezzo of extraordinary range and colour, and was a fearsome vision as the rabid, warmongering Drummer Girl with Bride of Frankenstein hair and grotesquely elongated, skeletal arms. The dictatorial Kaiser Overall, undoubtedly inspired by Hitler, was grippingly performed by the baritone Keith Phares. The soprano Rachelle Durkin sang Bubikopf, a young girl posing as a soldier, with warmth and commitment, although the uppermost note proved a taxing reach. She was ably partnered by the tenor Matt Morgan as the soldier who falls in love with her. Peter Tantsits sang freely and did what he could with the in-your-face comic tenor role of Harlekin; this type of operatic clown is always tough to play and rarely succeeds in drawing laughs.
Robert Ainsley delivered wonderfully lively, idiomatic conducting of the International Contemporary Ensemble, accentuating the bubbly saxophone-piano-banjo rhythms while fully exploring the broader melodic scope of the sequences focusing on love and mortality. As he pointed out in a brief pre-curtain speech, 'This opera is a celebration of life, not a memento of death. It is not a requiem; it is a cabaret.' Somehow, Ullman and Peter Kien created a burst of satirical defiance in the face of unimaginable horror. Within a year, both were transported to Auschwitz and exterminated.
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Opera (UK), November