In the three or four generations since composer Viktor Ullmann wrote his opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis with librettist Peter Kien, in the Nazi ghetto-prison Terezín (Theresienstadt) in 1943/44, humanity hasn’t progressed very far. To anyone in today’s world who even pays the slightest attention, this work’s themes and characters–for instance, its “Kaiser” is a demented, tyrannical dictator who launches a massive, unprovoked war–will be all too familiar, and real.
Death and Harlequin are sitting together reminiscing, Harlequin lamenting how life is no fun anymore; Death decrying the loss of the glorious nature of dying as in the old days. Neither finds satisfaction or meaning in a world that has lost its ability to laugh or to properly die. But then Emperor Overall announces that “we have decided in our infallible, all-penetrating wisdom, to declare…the great, beneficent War of all against all.” Every person, whether child, woman, or man (“whether crooked or straight”) will take up arms, everyone against everyone. And, Overall declares, it will all be led by “our old associate, Death.” However, upon hearing this, Death takes offense at the presumption, breaks his sword, and refuses to cooperate. Death goes “on strike”. (The subtitle of the opera is “oder Die Tod-Verweigerung”, or the Disobedience of Death.)
What follows–including the confrontation between two seeming enemies who choose love rather than fighting–concerns the (ultimately chaotic) consequences of a world without death, and, importantly, of removing the instrument of death from a ruler’s arsenal. If death is no longer at his service, then the Emperor no longer has his power. Ultimately Death returns to his work, restores his necessary function, taking Overall with him.
Ullmann’s music is a fascinating assortment of styles, owing to influences of Schoenberg (with whom he studied) and to several of the more popular forms of the period (Weill’s “cabaret” music is often mentioned), whose juxtapositions–and the fact that it’s all very “singable”–sustain musical interest while ensuring no loss of dramatic momentum. Here are elements of the colorful, somewhat experimental, developing world of music theatre in “between-the-wars” Central Europe, mixing the tonal and atonal, the humorous and the grotesque, irony and the plainly serious, while, in Ullmann’s hands, always mindful of a necessity for structural formality.
Instrumentation–undoubtedly determined by what was available in the camp–is a colorful mix, a 13-piece chamber orchestra that includes strings and winds, but also harmonium, saxophone, banjo, and harpsichord. Throughout there are quotations, both in the libretto and music, from other works that would have carried particular meaning for the audience. Among them: the very first notes of the opera are the Angel of Death motif from Czech composer Josef Suk’s “Asrael” Symphony; there is an effectively distorted rendition of Haydn’s “Kaiser Lied” (which had become the German national anthem); and at the end of the opera comes the famous chorale tune “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”.
Because of the circumstances of the work’s creation and its ultimate fate–it was never performed in Terezín; its premiere wasn’t until 1975–there is no definitive version. Ullmann and most of the other artists involved in the production were deported to Auschwitz in October, 1944, and before he left, the composer gave his manuscripts to Terezín’s librarian for what he hoped would be safekeeping until after the war. Ullmann was killed on arrival at Auschwitz. The scores survived but were only discovered years later in London. [Note: for a detailed account of the musical lives and activities in the Terezín concentration camp, including those of Viktor Ullmann and many other musicians, please see Joza Karas’ seminal work on the subject, Music In Terezín 1941-1945 (Pendragon Press).]
The existing score was much annotated, marked up with changes made during rehearsals. In some instances Ullmann himself provided alternate choices or leaves uncertain notations that are equally likely options. However, careful study has been undertaken and serious efforts made to discern Ullmann’s intent as closely and clearly as possible and to produce a score based on these findings and educated assumptions. This is the version we get here, and it’s excellent, from the singing to the instrumental work. And don’t forget the first rate notes and the inclusion of the complete libretto in four languages.
The music itself is more than worthy of serious attention; this is a sophisticated, consistently engaging dramatic work that impresses, in the words of annotator Bruno Giner, “not because it was composed in Theresienstadt, not as an emblematic parable of totalitarianism…but indeed because it is an accomplished and artistically successful work.” There are no stand-alone arias in the traditional sense, nor grand, show-stopping moments; it doesn’t require singers of extraordinary technical capabilities (not that the ones here aren’t capable of such!). It’s just a hair-raising story, ingeniously characterized, plotted, and scored; one that makes its points very effectively, one you will remember. The singers and instrumental players assembled for this recording are all first-rate–the singers’ voices exactly right for these roles; the chamber orchestra in command of the style and always supportive and assertive where required.
And, speaking of singers–and the “all too familiar”: In the notes you will read that this recording, which was made in March, 2015, is dedicated “to the memory of our comrade Wassyl Slipak, whose voice never left us.” A baritone at the Paris Opera, Slipak, who here sings the role of Death with impressive vocalism and commanding presence, left his position there in 2015 to join the fight against Russian separatists in his native Ukraine. He was killed by a sniper in June, 2016. And so it goes.