mon 16/09/2019

The Emperor of Atlantis, Arcola Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Emperor of Atlantis, Arcola Theatre

The Emperor of Atlantis, Arcola Theatre

Viktor Ullmann's opera does not reveal a neglected genius

Composer Viktor Ullmann's one talent was pastiche

We critics often find ourselves "embarrassed by historical facts", as Craig Raine once put it. Raine was trying to explain why so many people still value Wilfred Owen's poetry - to him, the most overrated corpus of the 20th century. "[Owen's] life and death as a soldier make literary criticism seem invalid and pedantic," he argued, before proceeding to a very validly pedantic demolition job. Music has its own Wilfred Owens. Viktor Ullmann is one. His reputation (which was showcased last night in a rare staging of his only opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, at the Arcola Theatre) seems to survive solely on the back of his death at Auschwitz. It's a good reason to honour his memory, but not a good reason - alone - to listen to his music.

Comments

I attended the second performance and whilst I found myself agreeing with the criticisms of the over-fussy production I find that I am at total odds with just about every other aspect of this review. I know this opera well and have seen other performances and whilst I would never describe it as an operatic masterpiece I do think that it is great deal better than your reviewer implied. Indeed, it is amazing how many styles (recitative, choral, aria, ensembles etc.) Ullmann manages to combine together coherently in such a short piece. One final point. The fact that Ullmann wrote this piece in Theresienstadt is relevant because this had a major influence on the way the piece is put together, the story and casting in particular. I expect that your reviewer would not say the same things about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, another piece written under similar circumstances.

This review sets up a non-existent case and then destroys it. Who exactly claims the greatness of Ullman's opera? That the work is interesting and worth hearing is another matter altogether. The work of artists in Theresienstadt is interesting for the way in which musical activity survived and flourished in that situation even if sometimes used for propaganda purposes by the Nazis. To degrade Ullman's abilities to only that of pastiche is unworthy. You may not like the music , but a better case can be made for it than you allow. For example, the end section "Come death" is particularly memorable. Whilst the use of 'Ein feste burg' might be seen as derivative of Berg's use of 'Es ist genug', Ullmans use of the Bach chorale and the musical accompaniment he provides results in an original and moving passage, that is a highly effetcive ending. It is hard to understand why you say that we should not expect anything of value from artists working in camp conditions, since whatever the deprivations of Theresienstadt it was not a concentration camp.

Mr Igor Toronyi-Lalic seems to specialise in a sort of 'highbrow' julie burchilisms...or perhaps the jeremy clarkson of the highgate opera and real ale society... who else could be quite as crass as to write: 'His reputation (which was showcased last night in a rare staging of his only opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, at the Arcola Theatre) seems to survive solely on the back of his death at Auschwitz. It's a good reason to honour his memory, but not a good reason - alone - to listen to his music.'

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.