Death takes a holiday--MOR presents an opera composed in a concentration camp

Seattle Gay News
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MOR presents an opera composed in a concentration camp

by Alice Bloch - SGN A&E Writer

Music of Remembrance kicked off its 15th season with a fascinating, rarely performed opera. The Emperor of Atlantis was composed by Viktor Ullmann during his imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camp at Terezín, in what is now the Czech Republic. Because Peter Kien's libretto mocked Hitler and Ullmann's musical score included a parody of the Third Reich anthem 'Deutschland Über Alles,' camp officials quickly banned its performance and shipped Ullmann and Kien to their deaths at Auschwitz.

The opera's story is simple and provocative. Emperor Überall decrees that his subjects must fight each other until all are dead. Offended by the emperor's presumptiveness, Death goes on strike. Now no one can die - even those in agony from the final stages of illness must go on living and suffering. Eventually Death agrees to return to work, on one condition: the emperor must be the first to die.

Musically, this production of The Emperor of Atlantis was completely successful. All seven singers gave performances of the highest quality. As the emperor, baritone Victor Benedetti handled a difficult role with skill and panache. Playing soldiers who decide to make love, not war, soprano Megan Chenovick and tenor Marcus Shelton sang a gorgeous duet that was the most moving part of the performance. Jonathan Silvia's silky bass-baritone made him a perfect Death - smooth and solemn; and tenor Ross Hauck sang well and provided much-needed comic relief as Harlequin. In a role modeled after Eva Braun, soprano Kimberly Giordano vamped it up and produced effective vocals. Baritone Erich Parce - who did quadruple duty as stage director, set designer, singer, and narrator - was a solid, unifying presence onstage as the Loudspeaker.

Although the singing was excellent, orchestral music was the highlight. Seattle Symphony Orchestra music director Ludovic Morlot did much more than keep the opera on track; he and a chamber ensemble of 13 SSO musicians made magic together. Ullmann's eclectic score - which contains elements of classical, popular, jazz, folk, and cabaret music - sprang to life in the capable hands of these virtuosi. All the players were superb, but the multitasking award goes to Joseph Adam, who whirled from instrument to instrument with dizzying speed, dividing his attention among harmonium, harpsichord, and piano.

Theatrically, the production was less satisfying. It lacked one essential element: a convincing portrayal of the prolonged suffering of the populace during Death's hiatus. Without this element, the return of Death at the end felt unnecessary and cruel, because the only visible effect of Death's absence was the flowering of love between former enemies. The score is too short to permit much musical depiction of the people's suffering, but the dancers could have been used for this purpose instead of filling their time onstage with the irrelevant balletic movements choreographed by Penny Hutchinson.

Ernest Bloch's haunting 'Prayer,' a movement of From Jewish Life, began the concert. This lovely piece featured the talented young cellist Benjamin Schmidt, winner of the David Tonkonogui Memorial Award. Schmidt's father, Mikhail, beaming with pride, played first violin in the string quartet that accompanied his son.

Three Jewish Dances for Violin and Piano by Marc Lavry rounded out the program with a slighter, lighter touch. Leonid Keylin of SSO gave a fine performance on violin, with Music of Remembrance Artistic Director Mina Miller on piano.

A concert of such historic significance, performed by artists of this caliber, should have sold out the relatively small Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya. Sadly, there were many empty seats at the November 16 performance. If you missed this concert, be sure to mark your calendar for the next Music of Remembrance concert on May 14, 2013, when an equally talented group of singers and instrumentalists will perform two works by composer Jake Heggie, a suite from Kurt Weill's Three Penny Opera, and a string trio by László Weiner.