Written by the Austro-Hungarian Ullmann while he was imprisoned in the ‘model’ concentration camp of Terezin (Theresienstadt) in Czechoslovakia, The Emperor of Atlantis (Der Kaiser von Atlantis) deals with the horrors of war, as experienced by Ullman while serving as a soldier during the First World War. The libretto by fellow camp inmate Peter Kien tells of Death’s decision to go on strike in protest against the relentless mechanised slaughter of Emperor Überall’s ‘total war’. With the living piling up and the conflict stalled, the emperor eventually strikes a deal with Death to recommence work so long as he, the emperor, promises to be the first new victim. Ullman never lived to see his work fully produced. After a dress rehearsal at the camp, the opera was pulled and the composer and librettist deported to Auschwitz, where they both perished. The manuscript was only saved because Ullman passed it to a friend in the camp for safe keeping.
Designer Neil Irish’s staging expertly blends elements of the First World War (spiked military helmets, medal-festooned uniforms and a huge European invasion map) with those of the concentration camp — hospital curtain screens, tattily improvised costumes, and a wavy arch above the stage reminiscent of Auschwitz’s ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gates. Director James Conway invites the audience to view life as a grotesque cabaret: a series of side-show routines and cheap tricks presided over by the ringmaster Death, dressed as an old soldier in a filthy trenchcoat.
English Touring Opera is good at spotting new talent, and it chose a fine cast for this production. Robert Winslade-Anderson makes for a commanding and humorous Death, while Richard Mosely-Evans’ Emperor is appropriately both pompous and naïve. Katie Bray’s mezzo was outstanding. Her punchy performance as the thigh-bone wielding Drummer combined vocal athleticism with physical vigour on stage. Throughout, conductor Peter Selwyn directed his eclectic band of players (reflecting the limited resources Ullman had at his disposal at Terezin) with consummate skill. The score itself is a fascinating mix of jazz, classical and popular dance tunes, giving off alternating whiffs of Kurt Weill, Ernst Krenek and Alban Berg.
The one-act opera was preceded, without a break, by JS Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden(Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds) re-scored for Ullman’s band. It was an appropriate choice. Not only does The Emperor of Atlantis end with a Bach chorale, but the cantata itself deals with the triumph of the human spirit over death and despair. With the four singers dressed in shabby 1940s clothing and nervously clutching their luggage as they sing before Death and the Emperor, the message could not have been clearer.
English Touring Opera continues with performances of The Emperor of Atlantis, Britten’s Albert Herring and Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse at the Linbury Studio until 13 October, and then on national tour until 19 November.