The Emperor of Atlantis/Christ lag in Todesbanden, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio, London
Monday 08 October 2012
Strange: you go to hear an opera composed in a concentration camp, and it’s Bach who moves you to tears. Terezin was the Nazis’ show prison, where the Czech Jewish intelligentsia was allowed to pursue its cultural activities prior to being trucked off to Auschwitz.
This was where Europe’s ‘lost generation’ of composers ended up, and the august Viktor Ullmann was their spokesman. "We did not sit weeping by the waters of Babylon," he wrote. "Our will to create was commensurate with our will to live." His opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis was stopped in rehearsals when the Nazis registered its satirical intent, but its score survived, allowing us to marvel that a work of such subtly nuanced beauty could emerge from such a hell-on-earth.
Director James Conway wisely decided not to pair this short masterpiece with another; taking his cue from the Bach chorale in the final scene, he prefaces the opera with a performance of Bach’s Passion cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden, whose message of Life triumphing over Death mirrors the message of Ullmann and his young librettist Peter Kien. Thus it is that the lights go up on a rudimentary little set topped with the infamous legend Arbeit Macht Frei, and on four figures dressed for a long, cold journey.
It’s not just the piercing beauty of their singing which is unbearably sad: it’s the sense we have that we are in Terezin, that this is exactly how it must have been.
And when, joined by three more singers, they move into character, the spell continues unbroken. Scythe-waving Death goes on strike, to the dismay of the Emperor whose aim is to kill everyone; Love blossoms between a girl and the soldier tasked with shooting her; finally, with a profoundly poetic rumination, the Emperor himself opts to die, thus setting the world free.
In this production the final tableau comes as a shock, as the original quartet reappears to sing Ullmann’s delicately skewed version of one of Bach’s most consoling chorales. But now they are stripped naked, huddled together in their defencelessness. We are back where we started, and the gas chamber beckons.
Conductor Peter Selwyn and his ensemble effortlessly bridge the gulf between Baroque grace and Ullmann’s blend of cabaret and Berg-influenced modernism; the cast performs heroically.
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
The magicians using online collaboration to push the boundaries
Jennifer Lawrence attacks mass media again over body image
Paris charity auction staged to save the ancient city of Tyre
scienceScientists find the answer to a question that even puzzled Darwin
A very timely Great Train Robbery and a frantic 24 Hours in A&E among the highlights
Geoffrey Macnab: The Wolf of Wall Street's account of white-collar excess is A Rake’s Progress on steroids
arts + entsThe 'Friends' actor on his new role as campaigner on addiction issues
Arts & Ents blogs
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, film review
Brian Griffin returns: Cartoon dog back from the dead in Family Guy Christmas episode
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber announces he's 'retiring from music'
Coriolanus, theatre review: 'Tom Hiddleston has blazing stellar power'
Nymphomaniac, film review: 'Despite the surreal sex scenes this is a serious drama'
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Fox News presenter tells viewers it is a 'fact' that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white
You can STILL be jailed for being a republican, government confirms, and it remains illegal to even 'imagine' overthrowing the Queen
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
Fighting back: the woman giving a voice (and 49,999 others) to the victims of sexism - by giving an airing to their horror stories
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
- 1 America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 Ian Watkins: Paedophile Lostprophets singer sentenced to 35 years for child sex offences, as judge labels him a 'dangerous sexual predator'
- 4 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber announces he's 'retiring from music'
- 5 Children evacuated from swimming pool after prosthetic leg mistaken for paedophile
- < Previous
- Next >