Viktor Ullmann: THE EMPEROR OF ATLANTIS
Carl Orff: THE CLEVER ONE
Review by David Gregson: May 18, 2009
Certain 20th-century works – Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” and Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” spring most readily to mind – were written under special circumstances and for unusual combinations of instruments. The Messiaen work, scored for B-flat clarinet, violin, cello and piano, was written in 1941 in Stalag VIII-A, Görlitz, Germany, and premiered before an audience of prisoners. Stravinsky’s 1918 tale (for actors, dancers and a septet of violin, winds and percussion), was heavily influenced by the composer’s need for cash and the availability of musicians during World War I.
Unlike the Messaien and Stravinsky pieces, Viktor Ullmann’s opera “The Emperor of Atlantis” is not a major 20th-century masterpiece, but it resembles them in many respects. Like “A Soldier’s Tale,” Ullmann’s work is basically an “entertainment” that utilizes a simple parable or allegory as its text: Death takes a holiday when faced by the destructive evil of a human dictator, Emperor Überall. (Stravinsky’s soldier sells his soul – a violin – to the Devil). Like Stravinsky, Ullmann uses a pastiche of neo-classical styles ranging from a Lutheran chorale to the blues. His idiom, however, is naturally more Germanic and feeds off cabaret music and elements of Berg and Schoenberg. And like Messaien’s “Quartet,” “The Emperor of Atlantis” was composed in a World War II prison camp, Terezin. Unfortunately, Ullmann was executed by the Nazis; Messaien lived to create dozens of astoundingly original works.
Carl Orff is quite another case indeed, although his opera, “Die Kluge,” or “The Clever Woman,” is also an entertainment complete with long spoken bits resembling vaudeville or the classic Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Far from being a victim of Nazi persecution, Orff has long been suspected, perhaps unjustly, of being a fascist sympathizer. Nonetheless, the text of “The Clever Woman” is also a parable or allegory (adapted from a Grimm fairytale) about an unreasonable King (for which read “dictator”), although one who only needs the love of a good woman to set him straight. Ah, those Germans and their “eternal feminine”. Think Goethe, Wagner — and the Eighth Symphony by Mahler (an Austrian). And as for the music, think “Carmina Burana” as Chris Pasles has already advised in the LA Times.
Ullmann’s “Kaiser” opera does not end quite so felicitously as Orff’s, but – in what is certainly the work’s most beautiful aria – King Überall does some complicated bargaining with Death. This, by the way, was gorgeously sung in the recent Long Beach opera production (just ended yesterday) by baritone Robert Perlas Gomez who impresses more and more upon every hearing. He wore an Aztec crown with distinction in Vivaldi’s “Motezuma” (sic) not so very long ago, and here he was again giving out orders in both the Orff and Ullmann operas.
In fact, while the most obvious and amusing razzle-dazzle involved the delightfully ingenious stage-director’s exploitation of the venue – a converted three-decked boiler room under a smokestack of the actual cruise liner Queen Mary docked in Long Beach – it was the first-rate singing throughout that came as the greatest surprise. There was a hell of a lot of talent up on that wonderfully jerry-rigged stage with its two decks of playing levels and the orchestra lurking behind in the shadows. Somehow, with only a few lapses, everybody managed to coordinate things with the help of discreetly placed television monitors. Artistic and general director Andrea Mitisek conducted with his usual inspired authority, of course, and while one might object to a certain lack of polish, as is usual with Long Beach shows, normal complaints simply do not apply. I almost always leave these presentations exhilarated, as if having discovered something new and perfectly wonderful.
Mitisek is a sort of genius actually – in this case (1) designing a set which is here and there made up of little more than bunk beds, assorted props, paper scrolls, ink markers and silhouette projections; (2) stage directing the actors all over every conceivable available space; (3) adapting the orchestration and other elements of the works themselves to fit his needs; and (4) conducting the orchestra and singers. He could probably take the Queen Mary out to sea if he wanted to. He’s also charming.
For the most part, the same singers performed in both operas – although one guy I’d like to hear much more of, baritone Andrew Fernando, only got to be the Man With The Mule in the Orff piece. I was also smitten by gifted mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, only the Drummer Girl here, but possessed of a fine voice among a range of talents. She got to sing Ullmann’s minor-keyed and distorted travesty of the German national anthem that offended the Nazis so deeply. Baritone Benito Galindo also lent delightful ebullience to his single part, that of Orff’s Second Vagabond.
Otherwise, double-duty was the rule of the day. Bass-baritone Dean Elzinga was marvelous both as Ullmann’s Death, an allegorical figure so appalled by Emperor Überall’s excessively murderous reign that he goes on strike and allows people to linger on, undying, ostensibly for eternity; and as Orff’s perplexed Peasant who ignores the wise advice of his daughter and ends up imprisoned. Soprano Suzan Hanson was equally marvelous as Ullmann’s Soldier Girl and as Orff’s title character, the wise Peasant’s Daughter who answers riddles with the assured aplomb of Turandot’s Calaf and who tricks her husband/King and then falls in deeply love him.
Tenor Doug Jones (such a program resume!) brought vocal skill and considerable charm to the roles of Ullmann’s symbolic Harlequin who teases laughter out of life’s sufferings, and as Orff’s unfairly cheated Man With the Donkey who loses a new foal to the machinations of the mean Mule man. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov worked our tender sympathy first as Ullmann’s Soldier and then plenty of laughs as an absurd looking drag – the First Vagabond (a commedia figure) in his most comical turn.
Mitisek brought us two Ullmann Loudspeakers (instead of the single one I know from my Entartete Musik recording), and these were skillfully performed by baritone Jesse Merlin (also the Third Vagabond). Mark Bringelston impressed as the second Loudspeaker (how do you portray an abstraction or an amplification device?) as well as Orff’s Jailer. The Loudspeakers seem to function as blank dispensers of authoritarian announcements and of rote responses such as “Death is expected at any moment now.” Jailers are also essentially powerless instruments of a higher authority
I am not certain what a “visual consultant” does, but Alan Muraoka who receives credit in this capacity seems to have given good consultation – except I would have quarreled with some of Dan Weingarten’s lighting choices. Many faces were obscured in darkness right at the start of “Emperor.” Otherwise, what he did was remarkably effective despite a highly complicated performance setup. All of Ivy Y. Chou’s costume designs were wonderfully conceived, and choreographer Tanya Kane-Perry got her bunch of non dancers to make some reasonably interesting moves. Frankly, it’s hard to say exactly just whose contribution anything was: it all flowed together seamlessly.
As long as the LBO is there, Long Beach will continue to be an important center of the performing arts in California. Lots of lovely money would probably help, although many artists seem to be at their best under straitened circumstances. Think of all those fabulous old Hollywood films noir made on tight budgets.
Whatever the case, this was an inspired double-bill of works rarely heard or seen. And the selection was so damned intelligent thematically: two German Singspiel entertainments that tell about the abuse of power; two different perspectives (very roughly that of the oppressed and the oppressor); two different styles of music, one little known and intellectual and allusive, the other wildly popular and tersely propulsive.
I wonder what’s next….
Viktor Ullmann: THE EMPEROR OF ATLANTIS
Emperor Überall: Roberto Gomez
The Loudspeaker: Jesse Merlin
Death: Dean Elzinga
Harlequin: Doug Jones
A Soldier: Timur Bekbosunov
Girl Soldier: Suzan Hanson
The Drummer: Peabody Southwell
Carl Orff: THE CLEVER ONE
Peasant: Dean Elzinga
Peasant’s Daughter: Suzan Hanson
King: Roberto Gomez
First Vagabond: Timur Bekbosunov
Second Vagabond: N.N.
Third Vagabond: Jesse Merlin
Man with the Mule: Andrew Fernando
Man with the Donkey: Doug Jones
Stage Director & Conductor: Andreas Mitisek
Set Design: Alan E. Muraoka
Lighting Design: Dan Weingarten
Costume Design: Ivy Chou
Choreographer: Tanya Kane-Parry
The Emperor of Atlantis/ The Clever One
Fri. May 8, 2009 – 8pm
Sun. May 17, 2009 – 12pm
Sun. May 17, 2009 – 4pm
Location: Queen Mary, Ship Hull
1126 Queens Highway
Long Beach CA 90802