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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Opera Review: The World Has Gone Mad

A modern double bill opens Juilliard Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"HALLO-HALLO!" The Drummer (Amanda Lynn Bottoms, right)
announces the Emperor's intentions in a scene from Der Kaiser von Atlantis.
Photo by Nan Merriman © 2015 The Juilliard School.
As I write this, our world as we know it is under siege. In Paris, religious fanatics fire machine-guns into crowds, punishing people for daring to go out-of-doors. Here in America, capitalist fanatics engage in racist rhetoric in  an attempt to become the leader of the free world. It is apt, then that the Juilliard Opera chose to open its 2015 season with a double-barreled blast of cynicism: Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias and Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis.

Both of these works have their roots in their creator's experiences during World War II. Poulenc was trapped in Paris even as the Nazis took hold of the French capital. Ullmann, a Czech native whose work had already been banned by the Nazis as "decadent" was part of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, a way station for artists whose ultimate fate was Auschwitz. Both operas laugh in the face of the madness of war, a defiant gesture in a world gone completely mad.

Les Mamelles de Tirésias is a setting of the French play that gave voice to the word "surrealism." It is the story of a heroine who flips genders, grows a beard and declares her sexual independence in time for her troubled husband to birth 40,049 babies in a single day. Director Ted Huffmann presented this show with a light touch, keeping the action non-stop and making use of prop dolls to indicate the wailing children.

Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson led a quicksilver performance, capturing the arch eloquence of Poulenc's orchestral writing and his imaginative blending of musical styles. Jazz, church modes and a particularly French classicism are all on display here, sometimes juxtaposed to jarring effect. The show, staged around an enormous rotating bar that served as birthing station, acting surface and was even occasionally used to sling drinks, never stopped moving for a moment.

As Thérése/Tirésias, soprano Liv Redpath gave an athletic performance with clear, silvery tone. Her husband was played by Samuel Levine, who played the comic absurdist tone of this show with a welcome straight face. The Juilliard ensemble gave fine support, with Fan Jia as the lecherous cop and Alexander McKissick as the obnoxious Journalist getting the biggest laughs.

There are far fewer laughs in Der Kaiser von Atlantis. It is a one-act satire of Adolf Hitler written when its composer and librettist were on their way to death. Death is its hero, an old soldier tired and disgusted with warfare. When the Emperor Overall declares a state of total war, Death abdicates, leaving humanity to struggle, suffer and hopefully learn their lesson. Eventually, Death goes back to work with one condition: the Emperor has to die first.

Ullmann wrote this opera for a Spartan orchestra, using what was available to him in the camp. The skeletal orchestrations a blend of cabaret stylings and post-Romantic German art music were balanced by Ms. Wilson in the pit. Onstage, bass Daniel Miroslaw was a firm if somewhat colorless Death. Dimitri Katotakis was a moving Emperor, who transforms from a Hitler-analogue to a personification of Ullmann himself facing his own mortality. Cody Quattlebaum (as the Loudspeaker) and tenor Gerald Schneider as Harlequin brought levity to the proceedings, as did the two soldiers (Rebecca Farley and Mr. McKissick) who stop fighting long enough to fall in love.

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