Viktor Ullmann's "The Emperor of Atlantis" is as much ritual as opera.
We dare not attend it without attending to its circumstances. Its back story -- it was created in the Nazi "show camp" Theresienstadt by inmates who were deported to Auschwitz during rehearsals and murdered shortly afterward -- is, for any audience, also its story.
We may be inspired by its satiric spirit, its pitch-black humor.
We may admire its eclectic, sophisticated score and trenchant text. But poignancy, nevertheless, dominates our response to "Atlantis." The ears shed tears.
That was the case once more on Tuesday night at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple at a semistaged performance of the opera by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Group. James Conlon conducted. Edward Berkeley's Juilliard School production introduced "Silenced Voices," a three-week project by the Philharmonic to focus on composers -- and principally Ullmann -- who perished in the Nazi-run concentration camp.
With the theme of the short opera being the liberation of death, what it meant to its creators could not be more evident. But the libretto by Petr Kien, a young poet and painter who went to the gas chambers with Ullmann, surprises.
Death, represented by a retired soldier, takes a holiday. The world has become too grim even for him. This gets in the way of Emperor Overall's desire for total war.
In the surreal Atlantis, a soldier falls in love with a girl from an enemy camp. A Harlequin loses his laugh. The mortally wounded, unable to die, suffer without cease. Death's deal is finally this: In order for him to end his work stoppage, the Emperor must be his first victim. The tyrant agrees, and the opera ends with unlikely power as this Hitler-like character sings a deeply affecting, almost endearing, farewell to life.
The music is an interesting blend of styles. Ullmann studied with Schoenberg and in his early years dabbled in the avant-garde. In Theresienstadt -- where he was highly productive, writing about 20 works -- he found a strong, more populist voice with touches of Berg, Weill, Hindemith and Mahler.
Berkeley's production, played on a bare stage, was for the most part respectfully straightforward, letting the opera speak for itself. But every now and then, he apparently felt compelled to rub things in.
For contrast, Conlon introduced "Atlantis" with the lush sextet from Richard Strauss' final opera, "Capriccio," which had its premiere in Germany in 1942 just days before Ullmann was deported to Theresienstadt. The contrast between Strauss' nostalgic music, and protected situation, and Ullmann may not have needed any further underscoring, but it got one anyway when Conlon, before conducting "Atlantis," removed his tails and put on an old sweater bearing a large yellow Star of David.
A champion of Ullmann and other composers from the period, Conlon oversaw a carefully played performance with a fine cast from Juilliard. Steven Paul Spears' Harlequin balanced silliness with sadness. Brian Mulligan effectively, movingly followed the Emperor's curious course from bathos to pathos. Alison Tupay was the strongly sung Drummer Girl, who eggs on those who want to live and those who want to die. Matthew Garrett and Hanan Alattar were the attractive romantic couple -- the soldier and the girl.
Only Daniel Gross' mild-mannered Death lacked sting. But he got away with it in this Atlantis, an alternative universe. We are well aware that for Ullmann and his colleagues, the real thing, soon enough, stepped in.