A powerful, deeply moving performance of
Viktor Ullmann's 'The Emperor of Atlantis',
reviewed by LAWRENCE BUDMEN
When Viktor Ullmann was murdered on 16 October 1944 at Auschwitz, the world lost a musical genius. A pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, Ullmann was an innovative, award winning composer and music journalist. In September 1942 Ullmann was interned at the Theresienstadt (or Terezin) concentration camp. The Nazis established Terezin as a phony model artistic ghetto. Artists, poets, and musicians populated the camp. Other Terezin composers included such prominent creative artists as Pavel Haas, Hans Krasa, and Gideon Klein (as well as the great Czech conductor Karel Ancerl). In reality Terezin was a holding station for internees bound for the death chambers of Auschwitz. During his two years at Terezin, Viktor Ullmann composed some twenty works. A recent recording (by James Conlon and the Cologne Philharmonic) of an Ullmann symphony composed at Terezin was a revelation. Here was an astringent, powerful, defiant musical statement that burned with the inner fire of inspiration. Ullmann's most ambitious Terezin project was the one act opera The Emperor of Atlantis. Composed in 1944 during the last months of Ullmann's life, this allegorical work is a powerful indictment of evil -- a vision of a world without art or humanity. On 29 December 2004 the Concert Association of Florida presented this historic work at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA.
The Emperor of Atlantis - Death (Daniel Gross). Photo © Peter Schaaf
The libretto of Ullmann's opera was the work of the poet Petr Kien. The opera is set in the mythical empire of Atlantis. Here the symbolic Emperor Overall wages war on a massive scale. In his world there is no place for Harlequin (representing life and art) and Death (disguised as an old soldier). Death goes on strike. As the Emperor's armies lie wounded and bleeding on the battlefield, Death offers the Emperor a bargain. Death will return to his work if the Emperor will be his first victim. The Emperor agrees. The opera ends with an ensemble (based on a Bach chorale -- the art that Hitler and the Nazis defiled) warning 'Thou shalt not take Death's great name in vain.'
Copyright © 16 January 2005
Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA