Opera Reviews
11 August 2020
Untitled Document

A memorable evening of music theatre

by Catriona Graham
Ullmann: The Emperor of Atlantis
English Touring Opera
October 2012

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith For the third of English Touring Opera's autumn productions, director James Conway has chosen The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullmann, libretto by Peter Kien, pairing it with a semi-staged performance of the cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden by Bach.

During the Sinfonia, Death, a sickle fixed like a bayonet at the end of his gun, leads on four people in 1940s clothes carrying suitcases. He places them before hospital-style screens. A sad-faced Harlequin takes a suitcase from one of them, opens it and produces caption cards. Death encourages the four to sing and settles down to listen with the Emperor.

There is a father, mother, son (in short trousers) and another man. The four sing the cantata, while Harlequin turns over the cards translating (or paraphrasing) the German. They are clearly anxious, a bit afraid. Of the four, bass-baritone Callum Thorpe has exemplary diction.

At the end, the audience of three lead the applause. There is no interval before the beginning of Ullmann's opera, composed in 1944 in the Czech Jewish ghetto of Terezin / Theresienstadt. Curtains are drawn across the stage as a backdrop, the hospital screens are rushed into shapes, and the characters and situation is introduced - it is, so far, very Brechtian.

Harlequin (Jeffrey Stewart) is fed up, as is Death (Robert Winslade Anderson), pouring out the sand from his hourglass and using it for a soft-shoe shuffle into a rather Hollywood-esque 'blues'. The sub-titles are comments on the action rather than the words being sung. The Drummer (Katie Bray) still in short trousers under her uniform, with long bones for sticks, announces - in a minor version of Deutschland uber alles - that the Emperor has decreed death for everyone. Death is annoyed and goes on strike.

Loudspeaker (Callum Thorpe) informs the Emperor of the progress of the war. The Emperor (Richard Mosley-Evans) is getting increasingly tetchy at Loudspeaker's reports that 'Death is expected shortly', that the soldiers are wrestling with life and that terrorists are still alive hours after they have been executed.

Soldier (Rupert Charlesworth - singing tenor in the cantata) is shot by the Maiden (Paula Sides - the mother), who cannot believe he doesn't die. Eventually, Death goes to the Emperor, who entreats him to go back to work - only Death strikes the bargain that the Emperor dies first. The four from the cantata return to sing the final chorale Ein feste burg ist unser Gott - shrinking, in fear and anxiety, in their underwear.

From the jolly singing of Death and Harlequin, to the clear, soaring lines and harmonic underpinning of the cantata, the performers on stage and in the pit, conducted by Peter Selwyn, bring out the variety of musical styles both Bach and Ullmann used. Guy Hoare's lighting - particularly the searchlight which rakes the audience - heightens the atmosphere. Designer Neil Irish's gateway, with the steep path from which Death entices the Emperor, is menacing.

This is a memorable production of a thought-provoking and challenging work.

Text © Catriona Graham
Photo Richard Hubert Smith
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