Photo: Jef Rabillon
Some works cannot be separated from their place in history and from the destiny of their authors. Der Kaiser von Atlantis is such a work and a genuine forgotten masterpiece to boot: Written and first performed in the concentration camp of Terezin, this work is a poignant cry, reaching us straight from hell, a cry for peace. Petr Kien’s libretto, written in Terezin as well, has the poetic qualities of some nightmares: Death encounters Harlequin, alias laughter, alias life, and tells him that he has had enough of his job, because it’s become too mechanical. Actually, he refuses to continue his work. In a castle all alone, separated from the world outside, lives the Emperor Overall. He communicates with his soldiers and outside world by way of a loudspeaker, and the Drummer transmits his orders to the people. The Emperor declares the war of everybody on everybody else, but then finds out that people don’t die anymore. One the battlefield, two soldiers are fighting. One of them realizes that the other is a girl and they fall in love. Death comes to the Emperor in order to explain that his task is not to bring terror, but peace. At the end, they all sing a choral that brings a new commandment: Do not take the name of Death in vain. Viktor Ullmann’s musical language adapts itself to every situation in the libretto. He uses all the means of his time, a bit of music-hall, a bit of jazz, Weill, Strauss, a children’s song… In the beginning, there is a lot of Sprechgesang, strident brass sounds, sometimes quite harsh and rugged. The interventions of the Drummer have something of Hitler’s hysterical prosody, and one can but wonder how even one performance has been possible in Terezin, under the very eye of the Nazis. As the work advances, sweeter motives emerge and the final chorus is a creation of unreal and overwhelming beauty. Louise Moaty’s staging respects and translates the work’s nightmarish beauty. There is a simple scaffold on a stage that’s almost bare, and three large elements of white fabric, half parachute, half jellyfish, that move up and down, or blow in the wind. Alain Blanchot’s costumes are sombre and sober as well, only the Drummer wears a dress of deep red. Philippe Nahon conducts the Ensemble Ars Nova with finesse and flair. A pity that both Sébastien Obrecht, Harlequin, et Wassyl Slypak, Death, are having a bit of trouble with the high notes in their first scene together. Tonight is the last show, the voices might have suffered during the run, and both the tenor and the bass have to sing two roles… It doesn’t matter, as a while later, they are impeccable, just as the rest of the cast: Pierre-Yves Pruvot, baritone, is a convincing Emperor Overall, the mezzo-soprano Anna Wall gives just the right measure of hitleresque dementia to her Drummer, the soprano Natalie Pérez is an adorable Bubikopf, the young girl, and as they all advance together in the final chorus, it would take a heart of stone not to shed a tear with them over our ever-trampled hopes of peace. And so we go out into the night, with heavy hearts, giving thanks to Angers-Nantes Opéra for putting on this work, and wishing that the Grand Houses of the world might follow the lead, and that the weapon dealers and the generals and the leaders and deciders of the world might get to see this heart-rending work one day.