Shadows of Theresienstadt Pervade Viktor Ullmann Opera

07/10/2012

 Christ lag in Todesbanden, Der Kaiser von Atlantis: Soloists, Aurora Orchestra / Peter Selwyn (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 5.10.2012 (MB)

Bach: Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4 (arr. Iain Farrington)
Viktor Ullmann:  Der Kaiser von Atlantis

Cast:

Emperor Überall – Richard Mosley-Evans
Death – Robert Winslade Anderson
Loudspeaker – Callum Thorpe
Maiden – Paula Sides
Harlequin – Jeffrey Stewart
Drummer – Katie Bray
Soldier – Rupert Charlesworth

Production:

James Conway (director)
Neil Irish (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)

Not for the first time, the heroic efforts of English Touring Opera have put to shame the larger, wealthier opera companies. Whereas ENO has elected to garner minor headlines by launching a silly campaign to encourage audience members to wear jeans and trainers, and from the 2012 productions I have seen on the main stage at Covent Garden, only one, Rusalka, has proved artistically first-rate, not only is ETO offering an autumn season composed of three twentieth-century operas – Albert Herring, The Emperor of Atlantis, and The Lighthouse – in this particular production, it has risen impressively to the challenge.

To preface Viktor Ullmann’s opera with Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden was a brilliant idea. (There was also a pre-performance rendition of a newly commissioned song-cycle by Helen Chadwick, Towards an Unkown Port, which I was unable to attend.) Bach’s cantata was arranged for the same chamber forces as the Ullmann, Iain Farrington’s arrangement showing both sensitivity to the score and an imagination that at times seemed to pay occasional homage to the Bach arrangements of Webern and Berio. (Was that a touch of flutter-tonguing I heard early on?) Harlequin and Death observe the performance, presented chillingly by four soloists – Katie Bray, Rupert Charlesworth, Paula Sides, and Callum Thorpe – with suitcases ready for the journey ahead. Though sung in German, Harlequin offers a rough and ready flash card translation, which at times he uses to incite Death, waiting with his scythe. This may be an Easter Day cantata, based of course upon Luther’s chorale, itself based upon eleventh-century plainsong, but it is hardly Bach at his most jubilant. Christ lies in bonds of death and though we progress towards a final ‘Alleluia’ – this from 1724, Bach’s first version for the final stanza having been lost – via, amongst other wondrous writing, it is sin, the wait for judgement and, above all, especially in a contest such as this, the stretto contest between life and death, that linger longest and most profoundly in the mind. Each of the soloists was excellent, as indeed was the Aurora Orchestra, the plangent beauty of Charlesworth’s tenor perhaps particularly worthy of praise.

Der Kaiser von Atlantis, or to give it its full title, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder Die Tod-Verweigerung (‘The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Denial’), followed on immediately. How does one listen ‘objectively’ even upon hearing the subtitle, given that one knows this was a Theresienstadt opera? One does not, of course, and it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to do so. A Schoenberg pupil, on his teacher’s recommendation, Ullmann was made a founder member of the committee for the Society of Private Musical Performances. Having been taken to Theresientadt in 1942, he wrote this opera with librettist Peter Kien the following year, though it only went so far as dress rehearsal, before being realised for the thinly disguised satire that it was. Ullmann, Kien, and many of their colleagues would be transported to Auschwitz in October 1944, to be murdered there.

Yet Ullmann’s opera is not of mere historical interest; he was an established composer for quite some time before the Second World War, and it shows. ‘Eclectic’ would perhaps give the wrong impression of the score, since it does not dart around willy-nilly; however, it certainly draws upon elements of tonal Schoenbergian writing and more popular idioms, often bringing Weill to mind. Death’s withdrawal of his labour disturbs the Emperor Überall – here, in spite of the opera being sung in English, the name was wisely not translated, adding definite national resonance – in his campaign of total war. (Yes, that very phrase is uttered.) The non-death of the soldier and girl in the third scene echoes, questions, subverts the struggle between life and death in the Bach cantata. Eventually, the Emperor accedes to Death’s demand that he be the first to die in return for the freedom for others to die again. It is perhaps only in this fourth scene that the music lingers a little too long, but even that arguably has its dramatic point, given the Emperor’s reluctance to die. The final ‘rejoicing’ is set to a lightly modernist elaboration of, irony of ironies, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott.

Once again, the orchestra, expertly directed by Peter Selwyn, was on excellent form. James Conway’s direction was typically impressive throughout, each character well prepared for his or her actions within this almost surreally terrifying setting, the sets of Neil Irish and Guy Hoare’s lighting playing their part here too. One had a sense if not of the conditions of Theresienstadt – how could one? – then of how modest means can create something far and beyond what one might expect, of the defiance and, clichéd though it may sound, hope that artistic solidarity may confer in the darkest of circumstances. Especially noteworthy amongst the cast were, once again, Charlesworth as the Soldier, also Callum Thorpe’s intelligently presented Loudspeaker, informing the Emperor of the war’s progress, and Paula Sides’s attractively voiced Maiden. Richard Mosley-Evans wavered somewhat as the Emperor, but the whole performance remained far more than the sum of its parts.

The production will also be seen in Cambridge, Exeter, Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate, Aldeburgh, Malvern, and Buxton. Click here for further details from the ETO website.

Mark Berry

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