Thursday, April 19, 2018

"The Emperor of Atlantis", an opera composed in the Terezin concentration camp, performed in Tel Aviv on Holocaust Memorial Day 2018

Courtesy the Isreael Chamber Orchestra
Commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel (April 12th 2018), a semi-staged English language version of “The Emperor of Atlantis” was performed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, as one program of the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s “Redefining the Classics” concert series. Conductor Adrian Sylveen (USA) and singers (Israeli and others) are involved in the Vienna-Tel Aviv Vocal Connection, a non-profit organization that nurtures opera singers.  Proceeds from the Tel Aviv concert were donated to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel.

Composed by Viktor Ullmann to Peter Kien’s libretto, the short opera (subtitled “The Disobedience of Death”) was written between 1943 and 1944 when the composer and writer were both prisoners at the TerezĂ­n concentration camp. A signature masterpiece of Terezin’s musical scene and a poignant glimpse into the lives of the suffering masses, it was first rehearsed by inmates of the camp, most of whom did not survive to the premiere. The score, daring in its satirization of the political situation of WWII, while delivering timeless messages on the power of life and death, is courageously provocative. Fortunately, it was smuggled out of the camp. Its performances worldwide serve as an extraordinary testament to conviction, wit and humanity in the face of barbarity. Ullmann’s musical score, calling for standard orchestral instruments as well as saxophone, guitar, harpsichord and piano, integrates post-Bergian lyricism with cabaret music in his musical style of the opera. It is a fine musical composition -  warm, confrontational, cynical,  jazzy and expressive, indeed, beguilingly powerful. The opera ends  with the chorale to the text "Come, Death, who art our worthy guest." accompanied by slowing drum beats.

The Emperor of Atlantis, ruler over much of the world, proclaims universal war and declares that his old ally Death will lead the campaign. Death, offended by the Emperor’s presumption, goes on strike, meaning that men will not die. Confusion results: a soldier and a girl-soldier from opposite sides sing a love duet instead of fighting; the sick and suffering find no release. Death, who is then persuaded to return when humanity finds the prospect of endless life unendurable, dictates one condition - that the Emperor be the first to die.

At the Tel Aviv performance, some singing took place behind the orchestra and some in front of it, giving different scenes a sense of distance or two locations. The singers were well chosen: tenor Daniel Kamalic (USA), playing  both Harlequin (representing life) and the soldier, has much stage presence, engaging face and body in lively cabaret-type acting as the former and joining Lithuanian soprano Jurate Svedaite, “the girl with the short hair”, in a tender and poignant love duet. Conveying the opera’s bitter satire on militarism, Israeli mezzo-soprano Ayelet Amotz-Avramson gave a spirited characterization of the warmongering drummer, her vocal timbre rich and flexible, as she contended well with the orchestra. As the Loudspeaker, Finnish bass Erik Rousi was articulate and engaging, with bass-baritone Steven Fredericks (USA) evoking Death in an imposing and spine-chilling manner. In the role of the Emperor, Samuel Berlad (Germany) had the audience spellbound as he sang his farewell aria with conviction, his voice mellifluous, pleasing and convincing. Sylveen and the Israel Chamber Orchestra contributed much to the performance in their richly-coloured presentation of the instrumental score.

During the opera’s final rehearsal in September of 1944, SS officers present were outraged at what they heard. Any further work of the opera’s performance was swiftly halted as “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” was immediately banned. In fact, the entire cast, orchestra, Ullmann, Kien, and their families were promptly shipped in a transport to Auschwitz. Only the composition and some of the singers survived. Following the Tel Aviv performance of April 2018, all present stood for two minutes’ silence in memory of artists who perished in the Holocaust.


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