ROH2 goodbye and good riddance. While the Royal Opera House themselves rarely come up with anything worthwhile to fill their Linbury stage, English Touring Opera have scored a win, yet again, with a striking and powerful double bill.
Victor Ullmann wrote Der Kaiser von Atlantis in 1944 while incarcerated in the Terezin concentration camp. Bizarrely, the authorities sanctioned and even encouraged cultural activities, though inevitably the idiosyncratic vocal and musical arrangements reflect the limited resources available.They were less keen on Ullmann's subject matter - a despotic Emperor who declares universal war, which provokes Death to go on strike.
The composer was taken to his death in Auschwitz before he could see his barely-veiled satire performed, and it effectively disappeared for a while, only premiering in 1975. But its historical origins, pungent wit and genuine musical merits have generated enough interest for an ever-increasing number of performances - only a couple of months ago I saw a creditable ultra-low-budget effort at the Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival.
The 50 minute piece on its own is not quite enough to fill an evening, but English Touring Opera cleverly precede it with Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden. This isn't just padding. The cantata shares the opera's theme of the triumph of love and life over death, and anticipates the stirring chorale at its end. By using the same instruments and voices in both, the two works seem almost made to be twinned. Bach isn't often heard on a banjo and alto sax of course, but the peculiar arrangements are extraordinarily touching in their very awkwardness.
Four overcoated figures put down their suitcases and shuffle on to a tiny makeshift stage, while the infamous Auschwitz gate sign looms ominously above. The Emperor and Death sit back and listen to their singing, while a creepy clown pulls approximately-translated subtitle cards from a suitcase. As the cantata draws to a close, the singers slip off their coats to become characters in the opera - the Drummer who announces the Emperor's decrees, the Loudspeaker who reports on the action, and the Soldier and Girl who, unable to kill each other, fall in love.
Costumes look like decaying fancy dress, echoing the music's ragbag of influences, jazz, Haydn, folk songs - and of course Bach - among them. For the closing chorale, everything but the underwear comes off. The singers stand there hesitant and humiliated - the most direct reference James Conway's production makes to the opera's origins. By avoiding the temptation to stage the whole thing as the composer might have seen it, the moment packs a heftier emotional punch when it finally comes, along the way reminding us that the message of the work extends beyond a political satire spun around a particular moment in history.
Paula Sides, Katie Bray, Rupert Charlesworth and Callum Thorpe made an elegant and well-balanced quartet in the Bach, and if the singing was not quite the model of loveliness elsewhere, performances were never less than dramatically appropriate. This is a work which positively revels in its musical awkwardness and to present it as a glib, slick entertainment would be to deny its essence.
ETO have put together a Spotify playlist based on a Gewandhausorchester recording (with expanded orchestration):
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com