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.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove