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Posts Tagged ‘Ullmann’


The Emperor Overall and Death

Last year this opera company staged Mozart’s Idomeneo to mirror how inhumanely refugees who come to the US for asylum were being treated. It’s been less than a year that we’ve known about the separation of children from parents (a violation of a basic human right), and less than a few months that it has emerged they are in concentration camps run by the private prison companies of the US — and being treated so deeply abusively that they are dying. This includes for children as drink kool-aide three times a day, and once when a group lost their one lice-comb being forced to sleep on concrete floors with nothing else to comfort them.

So this year the company staged an opera written and first rehearsed by a group of people living in a Nazi ghetto. When the authorities got hold of what this group of people were rehearsing, they shipped them out to Auschwitz and killed them all forthwith. The story of this opera is that death is refusing to kill anyone any more because the life they are leading is death and death would be a release ….

This blog is inadequate, but I felt I had to say something — however hot and tired I feel from this super-hot day and night …

Friends and readers,

This afternoon, Izzy and I went to a stunning masque-like opera written by Viktor Ullmann while he and Peter Kien, poet and painter, were prisoners in a Nazi ghetto, Terezin. It’s an allegory of death (that’s what life is) in Nazi-like regimes. The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. Death refuses to kill anyone any more. It was paired with an unfortunately non-witty allegorical opera by Gluck, Merlin’s Island, which reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s Enchanted Island (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest), only much more inconsistent, inane. Go by all means and endure the first hour to get to the second.

It seems to me the opera by Ullmann is insufficently well known, so I here record and (if there is still time or you get another opportunity) urge all who read this to attend the composer Viktor Ullmann‘s one-act masque-like nightmare opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. The speeches and lyrics are by Peter Kien, who happened to be there, and the whole practiced by an amateur community. Written between 1943 and 1944, in a Nazi prison ghetto, Terezin, it is an astonishingly courageous allegory of Nazi thinking, norms, roles people are given in regimes. The characters are all allegorical figures: the Emperor Overall, Death, the Loudspeaker, a Soldier, a Girl with Bobbed Hair, Harlequin, a Drummer. They live in a world where the living no longer laugh, and the dying cannot die; where life is a slow death, no one follows the usual roles of social life. The action (such as it is) is a declaration of war to end all wars, and we watch the characters respond individually and as pairs to this and one another.


The soldier and the girl evoke memories of a cabaret

The girl and soldier soften towards one another, and end up in bed; there is a battlefield, after which Harlekin sweeps up the blood. Other characters are pained by memories, and panic because they cannot die. There is a young woman dressed as a Nazi boyscout who keeps coming down a slide. At the close death regrets the suffering he has caused, and returns to offer relief to the characters. There are numerous vignettes, which as I watched, resonated for me with parallels from the contemporary US political worlds; the impersonal powerful characters tyrannize, others mock; some are outraged, others destroy their weapons. The costumes are a mix of cabaret, medieval allegory, German imagery taken over from operas, technology, cheap vaudeville shows. The music seemed to my ears mid-20th century.

The notes to the program told us that when the Nazi authorities got hold of the script, all the artists and people involved in the camp were sent to Auschwitz to die. As I watched I felt a cry from the soul of people reaching out. Death had not succeeded in keeping to its refusal and the real people had been done away with cruelly, senselessly.

The audience was stunned and then applauded strongly. One man broke out with a “bravi!” I have read the papers and documents left to us from the Lodz Ghetto and I felt like I was entering the mind-set of people forced to live in such regimes. This is what we are threatened by again today.

Last year the company did Mozart’s Idomeneo Kim Pensinger (now retired) readily turned this opera with its beautiful music into a play about a tyrant doing all he could to destroy refugees, whose cruel state he was partly responsible for. The staging was minimal, she allowed the figures of the fleeing, the victims, the war scenes their full plain predominance.

There is a problem: Death’s Refusal runs but 55 minutes. So, the Wolf Trap opera company felt they had to fill out the time and you will have to sit through a rather inane allegorical comedy by Christoph Willibald Gluck (he of Orfeo e Eurydice and Iphigenia fame), Merlin’s Island.


Pierrot and Scapin, Argentine and Diamantine

L’Ile de Merlin reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s re-write of Shakespeare’s Tempest as The Enchanted Island. Two young men are shipwrecked on an island, fall in love with Merlin’s nieces (who live there); it’s a place where some patriarchal values and norms are reversed, and the two young men have to learn how to cherish the nieces, and overcome the violence of their rivals. They are taught wry inconsistent lessons. At its best moments, its musical feel and sense of gendered allegories reminded me of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, but the allegory didn’t make sense, and the characters too without personality. It was based on a vaudeville kind of comedy, composed by Jean Gilliers, (premiered at a Paris fair in 1718). The French libretto is by Louis Anseaume, as corrected by Favart. One does not expect Arthurian characters from an 18th century opera, but out of a vaudeville show suggests just how the Arthurian matter had been degraded by this time. (It was just then about to undergo remarkable renewal.) A man played the accordion from the side of the stage as the action began. I can say the costumes were fun:


Conor McDonald as Merlin – all glittery, he looks like a gas station attendant

Everyone sung beautifully, acted as best they could with the material, and the idea was to present another opera debating ideas; but here they were non-serious (wealth is presented as non-desirable) seemed in inappropriate match for the dark story of Atlantis. After all Gluck wrote so many operas; the lecturer said he lived on another 50 years; 40 years later he composed Orfeo, another ten, Iphigenia. There is nothing in the history or context of the operas or composer’s aims beyond allegoresis to unite the two operas.

The umbrella title for the pair, The world Upside Down, did not join the two; they seemed a dislocated juxtaposition to me, though Annette Midgett does what she can to show the parallels.

Merlin is historically revealing; I didn’t know an opera like this one (a kind of left-over from wild god-goddesses baroque) could be written and staged 3/4s of the way through the century — I thought it was all opera buffa or opera serieux. There is nothing offensive, and 75 minutes is not too much time. But you are going to have to sit through it in order to have the privilege, important in this year 2019 when the Enlightenment’s achievements in thought, feeling, governance, family life, romance are being so undermined, of seeing Death’s Refusal.

Last year July 4th, at Wolf Trap we experienced a staging about the way the US gov’t was treating refugees, now we have an opera to show how we are threatened.

Need I remind my readers who is staging a mass celebration of himself on the mall of the capitol this year?

Ellen

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