On Wednesday, February 2, I had the opportunity to see The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullmann in the Boston Lyric Opera’s latest production.
When I first entered the theater, it was quite confusing. There were ushers (or who you thought were ushers) standing there, just talking. They were saying things such as, “We are sorry, but our theater is under renovation.” Certainly, the theater DID look like it was under construction when one entered. Perhaps the scariest thing the ushers did (and the spookiest, I would say) was asking everyone what their name was. On the surface, that is not out of the ordinary. It was the way the ushers said it, however, that made you question their motives and made you feel very uncomfortable.
The theater itself was covered in work lights and sheets of plastic. The stage was full of plastic and work lights as well as some additional scaffolding. For the first opera, the world premiere of The After Image by Richard Beaudoin, the stage was in all black, with only a chamber orchestra consisting of a Clarinet, Violin, Piano, and Cello and two singers onstage (Jamie van Eyck and Kevin Burdette). It is the same instrumentation of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, an obvious piece to look back to. Although The After-Image was an interesting piece, to my ears, it did not make aural sense. The only reason I knew what was going on was because of the action onstage. It did set the mood for the Ullmann, so in that regard it was successful. It will be interesting to see how, in the future, BLO utilizes new music in their productions. Hopefully, they continue to commission new works.
The highlight of the evening was the Ullmann. It was fantastically conceived and implemented. Even the transition from The After Image was built into the opera, as there was no intermission. The Nazi influence was certainly present, with Emperor Überall (Andrew Wilkowske) a cross between Napoleon and Hitler, as was the German singspiel element. The director, David Schweizer, plays up the irony of the entire production with over-the-top props to ridiculous costumes. It makes the elements of the story that are really biting very poignant. The duet between the soldier girl (Kathryn Skemp) and the soldier (Julius Ahn) were very moving. The drummer (Jamie van Eyck) was equally impressive in her commanding role.
The people who stole the show, however, were death/loudspeaker (Kevin Burdette) and Harlequin (John Mac Master). Death was funny at times, serious at times, but always set the tone. He was commanding even in his outrageous costume, complete with bright red lipstick. In his exoteric role, he was the center of the truth of the opera. Harlequin was the companion to death and the only person who was an actual comedic figure. He was dressed in such a way as to remind you of Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo. This was very important in how John Mac Master played the role, which he did to great success.
At its core, The Emperor of Atlantis is about tyranny, oppression, murder, deceit, hope, and humanity. All of these emotions were conveyed onstage. It was an extremely powerful production. I wish I had time to see it again.