Kaiser von Atlantis, Der [Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder Der Tod dankt ab (‘The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Abdicates’)]
- David Bloch
‘Legend’ in four scenes by Viktor Ullmann to a libretto by Petr Kien; Amsterdam, Bellevue Theatre, 16 December 1975.
The work was composed in 1943 in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezín). Two versions of the libretto, one handwritten, the other typed, were made on the reverse side of prisoner information forms. The work is scored for seven singers and a medium-sized ensemble of available instruments. The cast includes Emperor Überall (baritone), Death (bass-baritone), Pierrot (tenor), a Loudspeaker (bass-baritone), a Drummer (mezzo-soprano), a Soldier (tenor), a Girl (soprano) and two female dancers. In the Prologue (melodrama) the Loudspeaker, after introducing the characters, describes the situation in which the living no longer laugh, the dying no longer die, and life and death have lost their customary meanings. Death finds this repulsive and goes on strike: henceforth no one is allowed to die. The opera comprises recitatives, arias and ensembles (duets and trios), and there are three dance numbers – a prelude and two intermezzos (‘Dance of Death’ and ‘The Living Death’). Ullmann’s music and Kien’s text inevitably mirror much of the tension and anxiety which the Terezín inhabitants felt in the face of an unknown but threatening fate. As with Ullmann’s music generally, the style of the work is eclectic, ranging from that of Weill to the Second Viennese School. With its rich harmonic and contrapuntal textures, and its varied instrumentation and idiomatic vocal writing, a convincing sense of theatre emerges. The quotation of music known to the Terezín audience would no doubt have had a powerful impact had the work been presented there. Ullmann quotes the ‘Angel of Death’ motif from Josef Suk’s ...