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Ullmann and Kien fashioned a satirical musico-dramatic work in the vein of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht (The Three Penny Opera, Happy End, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, The Seven Deadly Sins). In the opera's four scenes Ullmann's synthesis of classical and popular styles ('high art' and 'populist art') is masterful. The high lying baritonal (almost heldentenor) role of the Emperor is a descendant of Richard Strauss's Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten. The Mahler aesthetic of the 9th Symphony and Das Lied von Der Erde permeates the score. The rich harmonic chromaticism of the arias for Death and the Emperor recall 19th century Austro-German Romanticism in all its glory. The repeated 'Hello, Hello' theme is directly quoted from the monumental Asrael Symphony by the great Czech composer (and son-in-law of Antonin Dvorák) Josef Suk. Suk's symphony is a rumination on death -- a direct parallel with Ullmann's opera. Ullmann's teacher Schoenberg hovers over the piece with sudden atonal bursts. The jazz inflected vocal and instrumental solos could have been written by Weill. (The use of jazz is itself an act of defiance since jazz was banned by the Nazis as decadent art.) Waltz rhythms recall the cabaret songs of Frederich Hollander (perhaps best known for the songs he wrote for Marlene Dietrich). Ullmann managed to combine these diverse influences into a deeply moving, ultimately life affirming work. That Ullmann could continue to compose under such conditions during the world's darkest hour is a tribute to the triumph of the creative spirit!

Using a thirteen piece orchestra Ullmann created a unique score. Such keyboard instruments as the Baroque harpsichord, the modern piano, and the harmonium (memorably used by Schoenberg in his chamber settings of waltzes by Johann Strauss and by Erwin Stein in his reduction of Mahler's 4th Symphony) add a spiky, acerbic tone to the score's recitative. The use of banjo and guitar adds spice to the instrumental fabric. Ullmann's jazzy saxophone riffs and strangely serene flute interludes seem to evoke diverse human plateaus that can not meet or interact. The instrumental interludes are brilliantly conceived -- bright, dissonant, and seemingly mock-serious. The demanding vocal roles require singers of Wagnerian stature. The sheer ingenuity of this score is astonishing! For all its harmonic astringency, Ullmann's music is frequently beautiful. As the composer's creative swan song The Emperor of Atlantis remains a powerful indictment of the horrors of war and of man's inhumanity to man.

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Copyright © 16 January 2005 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA


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