Agudin’s Splendid New “Emperor of Atlantis”

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ULLMANN: Der Kaiser von Atlantis / Pierre-Yves Pruvot, bar (Kaiser Overall); Wassyl Slipak, bs-bar (Death/The Loudspeaker); Anna Wall, mezzo (Drummer); Natalie Pérez, sop (Bublkopf); Sébastien Obrecht, ten (Harlequin/Soldier); Orchestre Musique des Lumières; Facundo Agudin, cond / IBS Classical 532018

For many listeners, Viktor Ullmann’s post-modernist opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis is not only an acquired taste (and one they don’t generally like, as it is written in a harmonically spikier language than even Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) but, worse yet, is considered passé because it is a specific reference to the Nazi-Fascist era and their joint persecution and murder of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals (although it is only the Jews who are the recipients of attention in the post-Nazi era). This is undoubtedly true to a point, but it easily applies to every Communist and Socialist system that has existed even to the present day, whether Russia (the USSR and Putin-Russia), Iran, Communist Cuba and China, or Socialist North Korea and Venezuela. Our “enlightened” modern-day “Democratic Socialists” here in the United States think they can do it better, but fail to recognize that every Socialist or Communist system has turned into an economic disaster and a dictatorship. But of course, they’re more than happy to BE the dictators because they have “compassion” whereas the others didn’t. Hardy har har. Talk to artists such as pianists Giorgio Koukl, Michael Korstick or Sophia Agronovich, who grew up in Soviet or Socialist dictatorships, about how wonderful these systems are. They’ll put you straight in less than a New York minute.

Thus there aren’t many recordings of this opera, which I happen to like very much despite its reliance on a parlando style and lack of arias, because 1) it is sung drama, and very good sung drama at that, and 2) Ullmann was a really good composer. The personal side of Ullmann’s tragic ending, being put to death in a concentration camp (along with his librettist, Peter Kien) in 1944, is in a sense superfluous to whether or not Der Kaiser is a great work of art or not. Any true work of art stands or falls on its own merits, and this opera , being an allegory of totalitarianism, is as valid in its own way as Verdi’s Nabucco or Deems Taylor’s The Emperor Jones (though the latter, to me, is pretty junky music).

The reference recording of this opera is the old Decca recording with Walter Berry, Franz Mazura, Iris Vermillion, Christiane Oelze and Herbert Lippert, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek, and while I recognize that Lippert is a far superior tenor to Sébastien Obrecht, whose voice is wobbly and a bit harsh-sounding, and Oelze’s crystalline soprano is in a class by itself, Zagrosek’s conducting—and the performance in general—sounds merely perfunctory whereas this one has fire and drive to spare. I happen to own a performance in English from the Cincinnati Opera back in the late 1990s with Thomas Goerz, Brian Leerhuber, Mark T. Panuccio and Allyson McHardy, conducted by Patrick Summers, that is equally intense, but except for Panuccio and McHardy, the sheer singing ability of this cast is superior. Yet that English performance, being live, also has an edge to it similar to this performance. Aside from Obrecht, the only voice I find somewhat problematic on this release is that of mezzo Anna Wall, who has a prominent flutter-vibrato, but it’s not nearly as bad as that of the late Pilar Lorengar.

Interestingly, even with Wall’s flutter, conductor Agudin manages to get the singers to blend beautifully, as in the short sections titled “Schau, die Wolken” and “Komm, Tod, du unser werter,” the latter based on the Lutheran hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Ensemble blend is not something stressed very often in modern-day opera or oratorio performances, and I for one was thrilled to hear it. It is the mark of conscientious artists who care about musical values.

But, as I say, it’s the overall dramatic quality of the performance that hits you hard, particularly in the deliveries of the Loudspeaker (Wassyl Slipak, who has such a dark, deep, resonant voice that it put me in mind of the late Gottlob Frick) and the Emperor (baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot), and even in the dramatic capabilities of Wall, whose voice, to be honest, is not any less fluttery than that of Iris Vermillion on the Zagrosek recording. The performance is broken up into 26 small sections on the CD, but considering that this is a one-act opera of continuous music, I see absolutely no purpose in this. Also please note that this recording is nearly eight minutes shorter than Zagrosek’s, and you’ll get a good idea of the tighter musical momentum that drives it.

The lean sonorities of the score, with its Weill-like focus on trumpets and high strings and winds, are well served by the Orchestre Musique de Lumières, and passages sung by the Loudspeaker are given a nice loudspeaker-like reverb that make it sound realistic. All in all, an outstanding production despite my few caveats noted above. I highly recommend it!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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