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Sunday 7 October 2012

The Emperor of Atlantis with English Touring Opera

Lindbury Theatre

The Emperor of Atlantis. This extraordinary little opera was written in the "show camp" of Theresienstadt in 1943, before the composer Victor Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. The score is endearingly quirky, drawing on Weill, Hindemith, Bach, Suk, and more lyrical elements from Schubert or perhaps even Strauss (the final duet of Rosenkavalier is echoed in one of the duets for instance), and its wild eclecticism not just of style, but of mood and colour gives it a charm and bite that is peculiarly affecting. Some portions are simply gorgeous - the shifting, dark beauty of the emperor's aria and then the crystalline luminosity and simplicity of the final quartet take the breath away in a good performance. Obviously the circumstances of its conception add hugely to the poignancy of it, but taken as a work on its own terms, it has genuine emotional power and originality.

James Conway's production is wonderfully strong as a concept, with beautifully conceived lighting (Guy Hoare), costumes and sets (by Neil Irish) to create an unnerving circus-cabaret-in-a-concentration-camp atmosphere, all with the simplest of means and greatest economy. The scene between the soldier and the girl which teeters on the edge between danger and eroticism, disgust and desire, was particularly arresting. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with this director, he struggled to draw out the narrative, and the piece seems like a series of powerfully imagined scenes connected thematically rather than chronologically. As I say though, design wise, this is as strong as anything I have seen this year, and for this alone is worth seeing.

Who Ullmann imagined would sing it is an interesting question - the vocal parts require voices of great flexibility and beauty - perhaps he had some exceptional voices at his disposal? The feeling with ETO's cast was largely that they were merely managing - the exceptions were Paula Sides whose sweet light lyric voice sounded pleasingly free above the stave, and Callum Thorpe who was similarly sweet toned and unstrained.
Robert Winslade Anderson never seemed entirely engaged with his role (Death), and the nasality of the timbre puts what might be an impressive bass-baritone voice behind a gauze of pinched sound. The Emperor gets an exceptionally beautiful aria of almost Schoeckian intensity and loveliness, but Richard Mosley-Evans really struggled to sing its wide ranging contours and long lines- perhaps he was unwell? Jeffrey Stewart as harlequin wails approximately through his role, sliding in and out of pitch, though tenor Rupert Charlesworth as the Soldier is sweeter and more controlled. Katie Bray works hard as the drummer, but her vibrato is far too uncontrolled and variably wide to be describable as beautiful. The chamber orchestra played stylishly, but I wanted far greater contrasts to be brought out in the music by conductor Peter Selwyn: light and shade, soft and hard, beauty and comedy.

Before this event cellist Anita Lasker Wallfisch gave a short interview about her experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her face I felt I already recognised from its similarity to her famous son Raphael Wallfisch (also a cellist), but instantly her solid alto voice and manner, her unflinching and no nonsense approach to the slightly fanciful questions that she was asked revealed a character of enormous dignity, strength and self assurance, with a gravitas that made you hang on every word. At times her directness and simplicity in talking about these events almost moved me to tears. Theresienstadt was a "show camp" designed as a smoke screen for the outside world - her musical experiences in Auschwitz were quite different. After having been in prison, she got deported to the camp in 1942. A women's orchestra had been formed by Mahler's niece, Alma Rosé, a "ridiculous" motley crew of half musicians - banjos, guitars and so on, but they lacked a bass instrument: she was their "saviour". But music really did save her life as she was allowed to play marches in this band until the camp was evacuated in 1944, and she was taken west to the concentration camp at Belsen, which was liberated in 1945. When asked whether the music gave her spiritual strength, she was quite clear: this was not a time for poetic ideas like that - surviving day to day was the aim of life. They were very fearful of Alma, who was very strict, so much so that they forgot that around them were gas chambers. Alma saved her life. Why did the Nazis want these orchestras in every concentration camp? The simple answer: the German people have a strong love of music -these were educated, cultured people. Not the people carrying out the dirty work, but the designers and planners of this catastrophy, this affront on humanity - they weren't monsters, they were educated people, who liked music. Reinhard Heydrich she said was a good violinist. She was asked once to played Schumann's Träumerei for Dr. Mengele. He had come to them, after doing god knows what, and clearly wanted to hear some Schumann. Yes, she knew who he was, no, she didn't think about it, she only thought of playing the piece, and leaving safely. Her answers reveal the simplicity and paring down of thought that the camp mindset required. Anything else would have lead to madness. The interviewer extolled the virtues of Anita's book about her experiences, Inherit the Truth, and without a flicker of a smile and without missing a beat, Anita responded "now I am getting propaganda too".

One of the most often repeated clichés in musical commentary (along with, "the cello is the instrument closest to the voice") is that "Bach can survive any treatment". I beg to differ, and have never heard an arrangement that is not "in Bach's style" that sounds as beautiful as the original. Anyhow, presumably the opera's short duration meant that the director felt it wasn't good value for money as it stood, and so tacked on, unexpectedly, Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV4) as a curtain raiser. But some ill hand had reorchestrated it to include as many of the available instruments as possible (including a sax and a clarinet) always indelicately and glutinously such that the timbre became an undifferentiated wash of humming wind sounds amongst idle string soughing. The chorale is quoted in the opera, but though both pieces are about death, neither mood, colour or spirit is shared between the pieces, and when the singers were merely fine, I just kept silently screaming to myself: why? If anything, why not couple the opera with something like Gideon Klein's heartbreakingly beautiful string trio, also composed in Theresienstadt at the same time? 

For those who are curious, the best recording to get of this opera is undoubtedly this one (click the link!) which has exquisite singing throughout and is ravishingly played, but here's a video excerpt of a different specially filmed performance, which includes the two most beautiful numbers mentioned above.

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