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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Opera Review: Death Quits, Then Punks Hitler

Boston Lyric Opera takes on The Emperor of Atlantis.
Death plays chess: Kevin Burdette in The Emperor of Atlantis.
Photo by Jeffery Dunn © 2011 Boston Lyric Opera.
This week, the Boston Lyric Opera staged Der Kaiser von Atlantis, a powerful opera written in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Billed as The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Quits, this is a scintillating work by composer Viktor Ullmann. Ullmann, an Austrian composer whose teachers included Alexander von Zemlinsky, was sent to Auschwitz shortly after the first dress rehearsal.

The team of director David Schweizer and set designer Caleb Wertenbaker re-imagined the Calderwood Pavilion as a reclaimed disaster zone, its walls covered in duct-taped rolls of white plastic, the entire production lit by white work-lights. Audience members were greeted by uniformed, zombie-like members of the chorus, wearing dark suits and brassards with a mysterious red symbol on their sleeves. They droned: "Welcome to our performance. The venue is under repair. We apologize for any inconvenience. What is your name?"

(And yes, they even fooled a certain jaded New York opera critic.)

Since Ullmann's masterpiece is less than an hour long, a prologue was added. This was The After-Image, a 20-minute mini-opera by composer Richard Beaudoin. Its dream-like music accompanied poetic texts by Jacob Rückert and Ranier Maria Rilke, to create a reflection of the war's effect on its survivors, and a meditation on an old photograph. It served as an effective curtain-raiser and contrast to the intensity of Ullmann's drama.

Der Kaiser von Atlantis is cut from much stronger cloth. This rarely heard opera was written in Theresienstadt, a "model" concentration camp. It offers a scathing view of Adolf Hitler as the Emperor Überall, (Andrew Wilkowske) a monomaniacal leader who declares a state of "total warfare." The opera was banned before its first performance. The score was discovered in the 1970s. A recording was made. And The Emperor of Atlantis was on the road back from operatic oblivion.

The libretto of Der Kaiser reimagines World War II as a screwball comedy where nobody dies and the Emperor is a comic, maniacal figure only interested in his own self-aggrandizement. He comes into conflict with personification of Death (Kevin Burdette), outraged at the Emperor's arrogance, quits--and everyone stops dying during the war. Death eventually agrees to go back to work--as long as Überall dies first.

The Boston company assembled an impressive cast. New York baritone Kevin Burdette made an impressive company debut as Death, mugging with John Cleese-like abandon and delivering his noble, impressive music with flair. Heroic tenor John Mac Master was a good choice for Harlequin, Death's companion and a representation (I think) of the madness of war. Soprano Jamie Van Eyck used her laser-like instrument to good effect as the Drummer, the epitome of the Emperor's military ambition. And the love duet between Julius Ahn and Kathryn Skemp featured some of Ullmann's sweetest music.

The staging placed the Emperor within a giant, rolling scaffold that served as his bunker. As the small orchestra played (performances of this work only use the instruments that were available to inmates in the concentration camp) the Emperor tried to direct his battles. Mr. Burdette doubled in the role of the Loudspeaker. This allowed director David Schweizer to re-imagne the dialogue between the Emperor and his underlings as a series of prank phone calls as Death repeatedly "punked" the Emperor.

Mr. Wilkowske has a high-lying lyric baritone, rising to the occasion in the final scenes of the opera. This death scene is when the opera moves into the tragic realm, as the Emperor agrees to lay down his life. As the final Bach-like chorale sounded from the balcony, conductor Steven Lipsitt drew soothing, transparent textures from his tiny ensemble. This marked the end of this powerful opera, a major 20th century work that needs to be staged more frequently.

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