“Emperor of Atlantis” Opera is a Work to Hear More than Once

The Sun Break
Publication Date

By Philippa Kiraly on November 18, 2012

Music of Remembrance continues with its adventuresome programming in this, its 15th season, with a short opera written in the Terezin concentration camp but banned before it was performed there, its composer and librettist sent to their deaths in Auschwitz soon thereafter.

Viktor Ullmann’s and Peter Kien’s The Emperor of Atlantis finally had its premiere in Amsterdam in 1975 and has been widely performed since. The surrealistic, sarcastic opera with its searing, barely-veiled indictment of Hitler and his aims is about 50 minutes long, with seven singers and 13 musicians playing the assortment of instruments to be found then in the camp.

Briefly, it tells the tale of a reclusive, powerful and increasingly mad Emperor who decides the only way to create paradise out of his land is to have everyone killed. However Death takes umbrage at this presumption of his job and goes on strike, causing havoc and misery. Eventually Death offers to return with the Emperor’s agreement to be the first to die.

Erich Parce directs MOR’s production with skill and imagination. With a minimal set and brilliant costume choices—notably the all-in-one white satin corset and suspender-hung clocked stockings worn under her plain wraparound dress by the Drummer, voice and girlfriend of the Emperor (aka Hitler’s girlfriend Eva Braun); and the uniform worn by Death under his long black cloak which outdoes in splendor the Emperor’s—and a fine cast of voices, Parce has made a considerable achievement.

Add to this the group of mostly Seattle Symphony musicians led with insight by Ludovic Morlot, the opera seems set for success.

However, in Friday night’s performance at Nordstrom Recital Hall, the opera was sabotaged by not having a detailed synopsis or supertitles, as words were rarely clear, even though singers obviously were doing their best. The result was bewildering, expecially the first half. This will be remedied for Sunday evening’s performance (tickets) with a synopsis included with programs.

Musically, it’s a work to hear more than once. Ullman’s score includes hints of other composers and a couple of intentionally outright borrowings, though in unusual guise. When the Drummer proclaims the Emperor’s killing plans, she does so to the tune of “Deutschland uber alles,” albeit in a minor key, and at the end, the actors converge on the Emperor to the melody of “Ein feste berg” but with different harmonies. To take care of the space on stage in musical interludes, Parce had the good idea of including a couple of angels, one of light, one of darkness, but their choreography by Penny Hutchinson did not fit the tone of the opera.

Parce himself did excellent work as the Loudspeaker, as did Ross Hauck as Harlequin, Jonathan Silvia as Death, Victor Benedetti as Emperor Overall, Megan Chenovick as the Girl with Bobbed Hair and Marcus Shelton as a Soldier.

The program opened with Ernest Bloch’s Prayer, performed by the winner of the 2012 David Tonkonogui Memorial Award, the young teen-aged cellist Benjamin Shmidt, accompanied by a string quartet of Seattle Symphony musicians led by his father Mikhail Shmidt. This talented youngster has a fine technique and beautiful tone, but his performance was more careful than prayerful. It needed more soul, which no doubt he will acquire as he grows to maturity.

Violinist Leonid Keylin and Mina Miller performed Marc Lavry’s Three Jewish Dances, two for weddings and one Hora. Presumably these are dances for happy occasions, but Keylin’s performance was altogether too straighforward, lacking the flair and zest needed.