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Monday, November 19, 2012

Opera Review: Goggles, Gears and Genocide

Opera Moderne returns with Der Kaiser von Atlantis.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The cast of Der Kaiser von Atlantis at the Bohemian Hall. Vincent B. Vincent
(center) stars as the Emperor Overall. Death (Jeffrey Tucker) is at right.
Photo by Sara L. Gamarro © 2012 Opera Moderne.
Viktor Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis is a work with a most painful genesis. It was written in Theresienstadt, the Nazis' "show" concentration camp where Ullmann was an inmate along with his librettist Peter Kien. Using a chamber orchestra of whatever instruments were available (including ad banjo!) they created a one-act, one-hour show: a bold lampoon of Hitler and the German idea of "total war."

The opera was cancelled when the SS learned of its subject matter. Ullmann and Kien were sent to Auschwitz and killed.

However, their collaboration survived, coming to light in 1975. Since then, the work has had a number of productions in Europe, but only a few in America. This is a short, difficult one-act work which requires serious vocal talent to bring off. And while Kaiser is not difficult to stage, its unique history and back-story make it difficult to pair with another short opera.

This spare, clever production by the German director Martin Kupferblum was mounted at the Bohemian National Hall by Rebecca Greenstein's gutsy young company Opera Moderne. Mr. Kupferblum reimagines the surreal Atlantis (a thinly veiled allegory of the expanded Germany) of the story as a "steampunk" wasteland. Costumes and props were drawn from that  sci-fi subgenre, which favors archaic, Victorian-era technology: top hats, corsets, goggles and of course, gears.

More important than the costumes are the voices, which were first-rate. Baritone Vince Vincent played the Emperor Overall with manic energy, soaring from the heights of megalomania to the depths of despair with a potent baritone and a gritty stage presence. As Death (who responds to the Emperor's presumption by walking off the job) bass Jeffrey Tucker produced sonorous low notes and a world-weary attitude. His final aria, declaring his purpose and motivation to a terrified Emperor is the opera's musical climax.

As the Drummer Girl (the Emperor's herald), Elspeth Davis (who starred in this company's recent production of The Turn of the Screw) soared to dazzling heights, using her soprano instrument with agility and force. Tenor Brian Downen brought pathos as Harlekin, another allegorical figure who is an old friend of Death. Kelvin Chan was an unconventional choice for the Loudspeaker, a soft-spoken, almost meek tenor in a role usually assigned to a bellowing bass.

Kien filled the libretto with nightmare images: greivous injuries without the release of Death, whole armies attempting to slaughter each other in futile battles, and citizens ordered to report for "liquidation." Adding to the horror was a  which featured disturbing archival photographs of the Nazi camps displayed on the Emperor's bunker viewscreen. The music, which fuses late Romanticism to tone-rows, cabaret and Dixieland jazz, was ably played by the musicians of Le Train Bleu under the baton of Ransom Wilson.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.