Friday, February 4, 2011

Life and death in the Third Reich

Kaiser Überall in his bunker in The Emperor of Atlantis.
Okay, folks - this one is important.

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.
This was the official reaction to the brilliant allegory at the heart of Kien's witty book, in which the mad Kaiser Überall (that's him up top, mustache, epaulets and all) has declared a war to end all wars - indeed, its only real purpose is to kill every single person on the planet.   The carnage becomes so great, however, that Death himself is affronted, feeling he is being treated like a kind of mechanical lackey - and soon he's on strike, leaving the Emperor practically apoplectic as more and more people are unable to expire on schedule.  Executions grind to a halt - they're pointless - and on the battlefield, soldiers lay down their useless weapons and begin to sing to each other of love.  Clearly this can't go on; but Death only relents, and agrees to pick up his scythe, on one condition - that the Kaiser be the first to fall to it.

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.

All this found its fullest form (and force) in a galvanic central performance by Kevin Burdette as Death (combined in this version with the associated role of "The Loudspeaker"). Burdette is blessed with both a commanding bass and hilarious comic chops, and in this dazzlingly manic tour de force, he seemed at times to all but personify the opera. Almost as good were baritone Andrew Wilkowske (another inspired clown with a great voice) as the Emperor and tenor John Mac Master (above, with Burdette) as a harlequin who's nearly as bitter about how things are going as the big guy himself.

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.


  1. Missing links are interesting, but sometimes turn back on themselves.

    When Bizet promoted his later symphony 'Roma,' historians wondered why he didn't promote his early, better Symphony in C. And then, Gounod's earlier symphonies started getting played again, and it was discovered that the early Bizet symphony cribs considerably from Gounod's work. The irony is, Bizet's tunes are, in the end, better than Gounod's.

    Something of the same could be said about Ullmann's 'Emperor,' --which, by the way, was recorded by London records as part of their 'Entarte Musik' (Forbidden Music) series in the 90's. (The series also includes the loopy "Jonny Spielt Auf" by Krenek.)

    One of the starting points for 'Atlantis' may very well have been Karel Capek's play "The White Plague" (premiered in NY as 'Power and Glory' --there is a printed translation of the play).

    Ullmann, who spent some years working at Czechloslovak Radio, would have known Janacek's work, including his setting of Capek's notorious play "The Makropoulous Case."

    Written in 1937, the year before Capek himself died from cancer of the spine, 'The White Plague' takes place in a sort-of Germany with a sort-of Hitler, as 'Atlantis' does; and a plague, a sort of leprosy, is killing off everyone over the age of 30. The darkest pages in the play are the quietest ones, where the young members of families inadvertently reveal their greed over their elders' dying.

    The Echt Hitler figure feels that the plague is cleaning up the country 'nicely', since it's leaving a nation of strong young people; but Hitler Lite is himself growing uneasy -- he's over 30.

    A lone doctor comes up with the cure; but he insists that he will only release the serum publicly if Europe signs an all-encompassing peace treaty. This Echt Hitler refuses to do, of course. Then Hitler gets hit with the disease, and relents and sends for the doctor, ready to sign a peace agreement.

    The doctor makes his way through an enthusiastic crowd cheering Hitler, and is manhandled by members for not giving the Fascist salute. He continues to refuse to salute, and is beaten to death; and the serum's formula is lost with him.

  2. Interesting points, Bob, but there's no actual evidence of this connection, is there? I'm not sure that "Ullmann knew Janacek; Janacek scored Capek; therefore Ullmann cribbed from Kapek" is an entirely convincing syllogism (and at any rate, the book for 'Atlantis' was written by Kien). After all, various versions of a central meme pop out of cultures all the time. But it would be interesting to see someone stage Capek's play; I'm struck by the fact that, despite the immense amount of study devoted to the Holocaust, there's still so much to be discovered about it.

  3. I'm not aware of any proof of the connection, and it's entirely possible that it was a coincidence, though Capek's play was famous enough to be turned into a movie by Hugo Haas; a clip from the end of the film (the murder of the doctor) is here:

    You're right about the possibility of there being no connection. Capek was writing "The Makrapolous Case," a play about a woman 400 years old, at about the same time Shaw was writing "Back to Methusela" --their conclusions about longevity are as opposite as you can get. And they weren't aware that each other was writing on the same subject.

    Later, Shaw and Capek became great friends. On the latter's death, Shaw wrote, "It's not fair. He was too young. It was my turn to go this time."