An Opera Salvaged from the Holocaust

Publication
Seen and Heard International
Publication Date

By Bernard Jacobson
November 24, 2012

The opening program in Music of Remembrance’s 15th season represented one of those ad hominem occasions where to offer anything in the nature of a formal review seems almost presumptuous. Any negative criticism of such a work as “The Emperor of Atlantis” lays a critic open to the charge of inhumanity.

What does the term “opera” bring to mind, aside from the “exotic and irrational entertainment” that Dr Johnson called the art form? Probably something luxurious, perhaps romantic, certainly far distant from any thought of the Holocaust. For men enduring the horrors of the Terezin concentration camp to have written an opera – even just to have thought of writing one – already constitutes a triumph of courage and resilience. That is what composer Viktor Ullmann and poet Peter Kien did, before they were taken to Auschwitz, where Ullmann was gassed and Kien succumbed to disease.

Mina Miller, founder and artistic director of Music of Remembrance, a Seattle-based organization dedicated to “ensuring that the voices of musical witness be heard,” succinctly describes Ullmann’s and Kien’s The Emperor of Atlantis as “a searing portrait of a world gone mad.” The Emperor of Everywhere – for whom, read Hitler – proclaims a campaign of universal war, to be led by his ally Death, who responds to what he perceives as a presumptuous insult by going on strike. In the confusion that results – for men and women can no longer die – Death offers to return to work, on condition that the Emperor be the first to die, a condition that the Emperor, after a brief argument, accepts.

Presented on this occasion in a simply staged production by Eric Parce, who also sang one of the baritone roles, the opera exerts an undeniable and at times almost frightening power. But a sense of professional responsibility compels me to say that Ullmann’s roughly 45-minute score, while intermittently effective, does not succeed in forging any compelling unity out of its 20 short sections, or for that matter in establishing any clearly perceptible personal voice.

Ludovic Morlot, in his first appearance for MoR, conducted a 13-piece chamber orchestra drawn from the ranks of his Seattle Symphony with obvious enthusiasm. The singing, too, was excellent, with strong performances by Victor Benedetti as the Emperor, Ross Hauck as Harlequin/Pierrot, and especially Jonathan Silvia as Death. The work was sung in an English translation by Sonja Lyndon, but I have to report – and this feeling was expressed also by others in the audience – that it was hard to understand more than a very occasional word of the text.

Despite my reservations, to witness such an unlikely fruit of the Nazi insanity is inevitably to be impressed and moved once more at the thought of what good men can wrest out of injustice, suffering, and chaos.

Two short instrumental works preceded the performance of the opera. Cellist Benjamin Schmidt, this year’s winner of MoR’s David Tonkonogui Award, played an arrangement of Bloch’s Prayer, From Jewish Life, accompanied by a string quartet led by his father, Seattle Symphony violinist Mikhail Schmidt; the younger Schmidt played with warm and solid tone, though an occasional note seemed not quite perfectly in tune. And violinist Leonid Keylin was joined at the piano by Mina Miller herself in a polished performance of Three Jewish Dances, by Marc Lavry, who, more fortunate than Ullmann, fled the Holocaust to pursue a highly successful post-war career in Israel.