REVIEW: Lost and Found Opera – The Emperor of Atlantis – by Neville Cohn

Rare Outing for Altantis Opera

Reviewed by Neville Cohn
on the 13th June 2014
for the West Australian
3.5 stars
Review of Lost and Found Opera’s The Emperor of Atlantis, by Viktor Ullmann

Perth Hebrew Congregation Synagogue

Despite an environment in which hideous abuse, starvation and death were a constant presence, it is astonishing that the arts not only survived but flourished in Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Reams of music were written and one of the most prolific composers was Viktor Ullmann who wrote The Emperor of Atlantis with Peter Kien as librettist. The opera’s performance in the camp was forbidden because the nazis considered that it sent up Hitler.

With praiseworthy determination and energy, the directors of Lost and Found Opera present works which, under other circumstances, simply wouldn’t make it to this neck of the woods. And at this first performance of the opera in Perth – and the first I have ever attended in a synagogue – this often profound work played out for an engrossed audience.

On the bimah (a raised platform from which, conventionally, the cantor leads religious services) was a rusted, tyre-less old car.

In it sat a black-gloved figure wearing a crown. Around the car was a border of wilting sunflowers. Behind this, a metal frame on a wooden base supported two off-white, rather tatty curtains. It looked makeshift which would certainly have been the case in Theresienstadt where odds and ends were used for sets.

Central to the plot is Death’s decision to go on strike. The results of this are astonishing: soldiers from opposing sides, instead of killing one another, become friends. No-one dies. But the Emperor, a thinly veiled caricature of Hitler intent on world domination, is greatly put out by this extraordinary development.

At the Emperor’s request, Death – a glowering, ominous presence in a first-rate characterisation by Daniel Sumegi – agrees to return to work. There is one non-

negotiable condition: the Emperor is to be Death’s first “client”.

Michael Heap was beyond reproach as the Emperor in both vocal and dramatic terms. His diction is faultless. So, too, was Sumegi’s. Jun Zhang as Harlequin has a splendidly carrying voice. Most of the cast sang powerfully in English but in some cases, surtitles would have compensated for some less-than-immaculate diction.

Thomas de Mallet Burgess’ skilled directorial touch was everywhere apparent. Joe Lui’s lighting design did much to enhance the production.

A small orchestra in the choir loft was presided over from the keyboard by Chris van Tuinen, each moment informed by an impeccable sense of style. It is music of gratifying immediacy, suggestive of early Schoenberg here, Kurt Weill there. There’s an obeisance, too, to Mahler.

There’s more than a hint of cabaret culture in the production with, towards the close of the opera, more than a few of the cast stripping down to their underwear.

The Emperor of Atlantis is performed again on Sunday and Monday at 7:30pm.