Kaiser Überall in his bunker in The Emperor of Atlantis.
If you care about twentieth-century opera (or opera in general); if you care about Jewish history and the Holocaust; if you care about World War II; hell, if you care about the old "human spirit," then you must see Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, which is currently holding court in a mostly brilliant production from Boston Lyric Opera, only through this weekend at the Calderwood Pavilion.
The big news here is simply the opera itself, which feels like an incredible discovery. Even though most opera buffs have at least heard of it, few have seen or heard it (myself included) - due to its short length, fragmentary nature, and curiously whimsical tone, it has rarely been seen in the United States, or indeed anywhere.
Yet it's certainly one of the major cultural documents of the Holocaust, and perhaps one of the major operas of the twentieth century. I know, I know - you think I'm hyperventilating. Just go see it and then tell me I'm hyperventilating. (I don't think you will.) [Update - unfortunately, the production has completely sold out.]
First, though, a warning - you may want to come late. As if the first New England production of this rarity wasn't challenge enough, BLO has also commissioned a companion piece to fill out a full evening of performance (Emperor reigns for only about an hour). The idea - a very worthy one - was to add to the marketability of the opera by creating a handy companion piece for it.
But alas, the evening's prologue, Harvard composer Richard Beaudoin's "The After-Image," though pleasant enough in an earnest way, is a bit attenuated and tedious. The piece is a meditation on the meaning of a photograph, and as it's based on texts from Rilke and Rückert, it hints (or half-hints) at all sorts of intriguing intellectual issues regarding history and the transmission of meaning. But somehow this "tableau for two voices" never quite coheres; if you can imagine Susan Sontag warbling along to the Quartet for the End of Time, you've got roughly the idea. And things weren't helped much by silly performance art flourishes from director David Schweizer that obscured, rather than illuminated, the overall arc of the evening.
Still, I suppose there's no use crying over spilt Rilke, and once the far-more-robust opera proper gets going, everything is suddenly imbued with the strange fire of a wild poem written in one's last hour, in which one attempts desperately to convey everything one knows about life and love before the final curtain falls. That sense of poetic urgency is so palpable because the composers of The Emperor of Atlantis were, indeed, facing annihilation: Ullmann and his libettrist, Petr Kien, composed it from behind the barbed wire of the Terezín concentration camp, which was the "showplace" of the Nazi work camps (designed to fool the Red Cross into believing the camps were habitable). At one time four concert groups operated within the walls of Terezín, and Ullmann composed some twenty works during his time there; he never saw Emperor of Atlantis performed, however. Sensing its piercing allegory, the authorities shut it down during rehearsals, and Ullmann and Kien were soon transported to Auschwitz, where they were quickly murdered.
|The dance of death in Emperor of Atlantis.|
You appreciate immediately, I imagine, the genius of the libretto. And Ullmann's music is barely a step behind; perhaps it's a pastiche, but what a pastiche - in Atlantis, snatches of Weimar cabaret bump into “Deutschland, Deutschland, Über Alles,” bits of Bach, and even a melancholy reworking of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (that most Germanic of hymns), as the Grim Reaper returns to his work. The ironic mood reaches its highest, sweetest peak in the lovely aria granted to the Kaiser at his death - it's really the most beautiful music in the entire opera. And at moments like this The Emperor of Atlantis seems to sail beyond the normal bounds of irony and into some sublime new sphere - this is irony that can break your heart; the humanity of Ullmann and Kien's conception - their almost whimsical portrayal of their own killers - stands as one of the noblest artistic gestures of all time.
Director David Schweizer seemed to recover his sense of humor after the languors of "The After-Image," and generally delivered a defiantly witty take on the opera's action, although at times the staging was a bit generically Regietheater-esque. At other moments, however - as in the funereal finale - Schweizer delivered delicately haunting moods and imagery. Designer Caleb Wertenbaker's set (left) was a grand post-industrial wasteland littered with technological junk, while the talented Nancy Leary's imaginative costumes evoked something of the desperation of life in Terezín (both Death and the Harlequin sported accessories made of barbed wire). This, actually, was one of the few moments in which the production referenced the Holocaust concretely - something I felt it could have done more often; how even more piercing this gallant piece of modernism might have seemed! Then again, perhaps some distance on the work is what's required; otherwise this particular testament to humanity could be almost overwhelming.