The Emperor of Atlantis, English Touring Opera, ETO, Linbury Studio, October 2012

This extraordinary one-act opera was composed in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt), located in what is now the Czech Republic near the German border. Its composer Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944), born in a small town near the meeting point of what is now the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, was a serious musician who had studied in Vienna under Schoenberg. He and his librettist Peter Kien essentially completed their work in 1943, but the Nazis terminated it during rehearsals. The following year almost all the creative team and half the singers were sent to Auschwitz, where most of them met death before liberation in 1945.

The Prologue, all images ETO/ Richard Hubert Smith

One of the main characters in the opera is Death itself, whose eternal rights are being usurped by Emperor Überall of Atlantis, a thinly veiled representation of the mad German leadership. He commands everyone to fight until there are no survivors, but it is not so simple. A soldier and maiden find themselves quite unable to kill one another, and people are in limbo between life and death. Harlequin appeals to the emperor to cease, the Drummer (Eva Braun?) urges him on, but in a moment of introspection the emperor enters the mirror and meets Death. They do a deal — Death will resume his normal duties if the emperor will be the first to try out the new death. He agrees, and the suffering people can once more find release in the natural processes of the grim reaper.

Drummer, Emperor, Harlequin

The staging by James Conway is simple and very effective, with Neil Irish’s elaborately garish costumes and tiny stage surmounted by curved parallel bars of iron reminiscent of the Auschwitz entrance sign. The singing was uniformly excellent with Robert Winslade Anderson as Death, Richard Mosley-Evans as the Emperor, Callum Thorpe as the Loudspeaker, and Paula Sides, Jeffrey Stewart, Katie Bray and Rupert Charlesworth as the Maiden, Harlequin, Drummer and Soldier.

Conducting by Peter Selwyn maintained the tension in this musically intriguing and extremely moving work that used only instruments available in the camp. It involves the Martin Luther hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, which Bach later used as a source for his chorale cantata of the same name, and James Conway has prefaced the drama with another highly appropriate Bach cantata Christ lag in Todes banden (Christ lay in the bonds of death), which stresses the struggle between life and death.

Death and the Emperor

As the opera progressed I found myself drawn ever closer to seeing the madness that contaminated Europe not so very long ago. Unquestionably worth seeing, and the programme is good value for the director’s notes and the essay by David Fligg, let alone the other two operas (Albert Herring and The Lighthouse) on the ETO’s autumn tour.

Atlantis continues on tour at: Linbury Studio Theatre, 12th Oct – 8:00 pm; West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 18th Oct – 8:15 pm; Alyth Gardens, London, NW11, 20th Oct – 7:15 pm; Exeter Northcott, 26th Oct – 8:15 pm; Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells, 29th Oct – 8:15 pm; Harrogate Theatre, 3rd Nov – 8:15 pm; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 11th Nov – 4:00 pm; Great Malvern Priory, 14th Nov – 8:15 pm; Buxton Opera House, 17th Nov – 8:15 pm. For further details click here.

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