Viktor Ullmann’s brief, 50-minute opera The Emperor of Atlantis holds a unique position in the operatic repertoire. Due to the fact he was Jewish, he was incarcerated at the Thereisenstadt concentration camp by the Nazis in 1942 where he wrote Atlantis – a thinly-veiled satirical take on Hitler which he composed to a libretto by his fellow prisoner Peter Kein. Ullmann undertook the organisation of the so-called Leisure Time Administration within the camp, but when the authorities got a whiff of the subject matter of his opera he, Kein and their families were transported to Auschwitz were they were gassed.
Ullmann’s opera remained ‘lost’ and it wasn’t until 1975 that it received its posthumous premiere in Amsterdam. In many ways it’s a baffling work. The libretto is very much based on the horrors of the time – as a result of war and mass slaughter, death refuses to carry out its services. The dictator (emperor) who has thereby lost his greatest weapon – deterrence – loses all his powers. Death only regains its real purpose at the end and becomes the comforter of humans.
With a cast of seven, and scored for chamber orchestra, the score contains echoes of Weill, Hindemith and Schoenberg and Ullmann quotes liberally from many well-known works such as the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, and Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony - in itself a product of the horrors of the First World War. Add to this his quirky orchestration – a result of the instruments and performers available within the concentration camp, and you have an opera unlike any other – at times inscrutable but its overall effect is shattering.
Performed by Dioneo at this year’s Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, its visceral power was never in doubt and there were some strong individual performances, especially from Osian Gwyn’s trenchant Loudspeaker and Thomas Humphrey’s powerful Emperor. If there was one quibble it would be that diction wasn’t always as clear as it could be – especially from the women, but conductor John Murton caught the right tone of the piece and the orchestra responded with some robust playing. Given the subject matter and circumstances surrounding its composition a sense of critical detachment is hard with this work – even so, Dineo gave a committed performance that cemented the opinion that Atlantis is the product of a hugely talented composer, whose tragic murder by the Nazis robbed Europe of a distinctive musical voice.