Saturday 6 October 2012

ETO - The Emperor of Atlantis

ETO, Christ Lag in Todesbanden © Richard Hubert Smith,
Christ Lag in Todesbanden
 © Richard Hubert Smith

Viktor Ullmann’s opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder die Tod-Verweigerung (The Emperor of Atlantis or The Refusal of Death) is an astonishing work. It would be so, even if we had no idea about the circumstances of its creation, but it was written in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp. The libretto is by a fellow inmate, the poet Peter Kien. The work was actually rehearsed in the camp, but never performed as the Nazi’s saw the piece as a satire on Adolf Hitler (probably correctly). It is a short work, lasting only 50 minutes, and rather tricky to programme. For their performances of the work English Touring Opera prefixed it by a performance of Bach’s cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden. Director James Conway linked the two works and this made a satisfying musical whole because Ullmann finished his opera with a version of a Bach chorale.

ETO have organised a variety of events surrounding the performances of Ullmann’s opera, these vary according to the venues. In London, the performance on Friday October 5 was prefixed by a performance of Helen Chadwick’s Towards an Unknown Port, a song cycle setting texts written by children during the 1990 Balkan conflicts and by Alena Synkova, a child poet in Theresienstadt.

Ullmann’s orchestra uses a variety of unusual instruments including a banjo and a saxophone and Iain Farrington had orchestrated both Chadwick’s song cycle and the Bach cantata to use the same orchestra with (I think) the banjo player doubling on guitar.

Towards and Unknown Port was sung by children from St Mary’s and St Johns’ CE Primary School, London and Hendon School. They sang from memory, and the work was staged with the children as refugees. Chadwick’s setting tended to the simple and melodic, but the combination of the astonishing texts written by the child poets with the directness of the child singers deliver was profoundly affecting. No, this wasn’t a musically perfect performance, the children were deliberately chosen to be very varied. But this didn’t matter, it was the wonderful commitment and power that the children invested in the words which spoke volumes. The centrepiece of the cycle is a terrible poem where a child describes the soldiers coming for the family and taking the adults away. Here delivered with great simplicity, directness and intensity by a series of soloists. The performance was followed by a discussion between Anita Lasker  Wallfisch, cellist and concentration camp survivor, and Jessica Duchen.

Ullmann’s score for The Emperor of Atlantis is eclectic with its inclusion of a Bach chorale as well as cabaret and dance elements. Director James Conway and designer Neil Irish, built on this to create a horrific no man’s land with references to concentration camps, war and circuses. The brilliance of the setting was that it all seemed horribly familiar but strangely distorted, perhaps The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari was in there somewhere too.

They opened with a performance of Bach’s cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden, sung by four refugees (Katie Bray, Rupert Charlesworth, Paula Sides and Calllum Thorpe) to the Emperor (Richard Mosley-Evans), Death (Robert Winslade-Anderson) and Harlequin (Jeff Stewart). With Farrington’s re-orchestration the Bach sounded strangely different and distorted, much like the setting. With its message of Life’s ultimate victory over Death, it formed a very fitting prelude to the Emperor’s proclamation of total war. Conway linked the two further by having Winslade-Anderson and Stewart reacting to the various sections of the cantata which refer to life and to death.

Screens and curtains were used to alter the playing space and everything was done at the front of the stage, ensuring that we could hear all the words, though there were basic text summaries projected at the side of the stage. The Bach was sung in German with Harlequin lifting up home-made subtitles, the Ullmann in Sonja Lyndon's English version in Henning Brauel's edition.

The opera was introduced by Callum Thorpe, as the Loudspeaker, with Katie Bray as the Drummer, Rupert Charlesworth as the Soldier and Paula Sides as the Maiden.

ETO The Emperor of Atlantis, © Richard Hubert Smith,
Katie Bray (Drummer), Richard Mosley-Evans (Emperor),
Jeff Steward (Harlequin)  © Richard Hubert Smith
Mosley-Evans was not a portrayal of Hitler, instead Conway and Irish had gone for a previous generation and with his uniform and helmet, Mosley-Evans evoked Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Franz Josef. Stewart wasn’t a harlequin but a clown, a very sad and elderly clown. As Death, Winslade-Anderson, who was born on Jamaica, wore flat white make-up which evoked for me some classic Voodoo images.

Winslade-Anderson and Stewart very much formed a double act, reinforcing the rather grim cabaret image, with Winslade-Anderson even doing a soft shoe shuffle. They were both wonderfully grim, easily moving from the cabaret moments to the darker elements. The piece is very much based on the German tradition of serious composers taking cabaret and pushing it further.

ETO The Emperor of Atlantis, © Richard Hubert Smith,
Jeff Stewart (Harlequin) and Robert Winslade-Anderson (Death)
 © Richard Hubert Smith
Thorpe, as the Loudspeaker, had the responsibility for taking multiple roles, whilst keeping the Emperor up to date with the grim reality of the progress of the war, another moment where Conway neatly balanced humour with darkness underneath.

Katie Bray was brilliant as the Drummer, first proclaiming war and then attempting to lure the soldier and the maiden back to battle. The soldier and the maiden, touchingly played by Charlesworth and Sides, were  finally inclined to choose life, rather than death.

As Death feels ignored by the Emperor, then he chooses to go on strike, leaving the casualties to pile up as the non-dead. We never see this, but Conway and Irish hint at things via the gothic distortion of the visuals.

At the end, Winslade-Anderson’s Death makes a reappearance, through the window of the Emperor’s room, a stunning use of space. He persuades the Emperor to be the first. This was Mosley-Evans’s moment. Prior to this, the role of the Emperor had been mainly hectoring, but now Mosley-Evans got a long and moving farewell, touchingly sung.

Finally the four refugees reappeared, now in their underclothes and sang Ullmann’s version of a Bach chorale with his pointed and spicy accompaniment. Conway and Irish managed to neatly convey that the four were about to go into the gas chamber, without ever pushing the image.

Conductor Peter Selwyn and the Aurora Orchestra, were to the point throughout the evening, ensuring that the diverse variety of styles cohered into a satisfactory whole. The Ullmann was beautifully played, with some nicely pointed moments.

With their productions aimed at economic touring, ETO often give us interesting and acceptable versions of well known works. Sometimes they hit pay-dirt and create something which is powerful in its own right. This is what has happened here. There was no thought that this was a touring company, no feeling of cutting down. Here was a brilliantly powerful and intensely moving staging of Ullmann’s work, one which balance the serious and comic elements. Conway and Irish evoked the idea of concentration camps but did not push it down our throats, there was something subtle underlaying their grim exaggerations.

I have nothing but praise for the cast, who encompassed everything asked of them, gave us some moving Bach singing and neat soft shoe shuffles. This is certainly a performance to go down in the annals.

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