Antiwar opera rises from darkness
Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis’’ is a work forever linked to the circumstances of its creation, in the Terezín concentration camp in 1943. At once a dark satire and a poignant act of wishful thinking, it tells of a character named Death who goes on strike, refusing to kill and refusing to serve a maniacal Hitler-like Emperor as he wages worldwide war. The piece was prepared for rehearsal within the camp but was banned from performance. In October 1944, Ullmann and the librettist Peter Kien were transported to Auschwitz, where they perished.
“Emperor’’ has since become an important work of Holocaust art. But can it also stand up as a compelling modern one-act opera? Boston Lyric Opera’s bold new English-language production, which opened Tuesday night at the Calderwood Pavilion, should close the argument. Director David Schweizer’s tart, nimble staging plays up the work’s dark comic aspects, its abundant debts to Weimar-era cabaret. The piece commandingly holds the stage. And when viewed with a knowledge of its history — the spirit of defiance and reckless hope embodied in its original creation — “Emperor’’ ultimately glows with a piercing luminosity.
Tuesday night opened with the premiere of Richard Beaudoin’s evocative if elusive work “The After-Image,’’ cast as a lyrical exchange between a daughter and a photograph of her late father. Scored for two vocal soloists and the instrumental forces (clarinet, violin, cello, piano) of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,’’ the piece uses text by Rilke, Ruckert, and William Henry Fox Talbot to dramatize the intergenerational dialog and to ruminate on how photographs mediate our relationship to the past.
But the evening actually started well before then, as Schweizer plied audience members on arrival with an odd bit of performance art involving would-be ushers. It’s all basically harmless, but if you see “Emperor’’ — and you should — come with a sense of the piece beforehand. A mock program, part of the conceit, does not mention the opera, let alone tell you anything about it. Afterward I met someone who seemed to have had gone in cold and emerged somewhat baffled.
The “Emperor’’ production takes its cues from the work’s improvisatory roots. Caleb Wertenbaker’s set has a purposefully roughshod look, as if cobbled together from the junk in your attic. The cast is anchored by an impressively deft performance from Kevin Burdette as Death and the Loudspeaker. Andrew Wilkowske makes an amusing, Chaplinesque Emperor Überall, who undergoes a moral conversion, sings movingly, and allows himself to become Death’s first victim. John Mac Master is an earthy, sympathetic Harlequin, the figure who recalls the sublime normalcy of daily life before the war. Jamie Van Eyck is persuasive as the Drummer, a zealous Eva Braun-like figure. And Julius Ahn and Kathryn Skemp are the soldiers who disobey orders to kill and instead fall in love.
Conductor Steven Lipsitt led an eloquent account of this remarkable score — full of coded references and jazzy, ironic Kurt Weill-like touches. The music grows deeper and more haunting over its 50 minutes, ending with a beautiful and multivalent setting of a Lutheran hymn.
Despite its knowing sheen and acid humor, “Emperor’’ is at bottom a heartbreakingly guileless work, a kind of existential Gebrauchsmusik, written not for posterity but to address the immediate spiritual needs of its creators. With the present and future at its most bleak, Ullmann and Kien dreamed of an Emperor who sees the error of his ways, and more to the point, of a character named Death possessed with a sense of dignity.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.