REVIEW: The Emperor Of Atlantis (Lost & Found Opera) by Sam Gillies

Reviewed by Sam Gillies
on the 14th June 2014
for Limelight Magazine
“Inventive production polishes up a lost 20th century operatic gem”

Lost and Found Opera is a unique organisation for Perth: An opera company that has dedicated itself to performing lost and underperformed works in found locations around the city. They are an indication of Perth’s growing maturity, where the arts-going populace has started to reward interesting deviations from the norm.

Their production of Poulenc’s The Human Voice earlier this year at the Perth Fringe Festival was critically acclaimed: a work for a single vocalist and accompanist, the performance took place in a hotel room to an audience of 15 people. The Emperor of Atlantis is their latest production and while it is significantly larger in scale, it retains the immediacy and veracity that has become a signature of their work.

The Emperor of Atlantis is “a kind of opera in four acts”. It is the story of the Emperor (played by Michael Heap) who declares an all-encompassing war between every man, woman and child, until there are no survivors. Death, personified by Daniel Sumegi, tired by the mechanical operation that war has descended into, is offended by the Emperors declarations and renders mankind unable to die. As thousands of soldiers are “wrestling with life, doing their best to die”, the empire descends into anarchy.

The work was written during World War Two in Terezin during the Nazi occupation. The composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist Peter Kien died in Auschwitz without ever seeing the work performed. This back-story is an engaging element of the work, but there is a danger the context of the work may distract from the opera itself. Which would be a shame because The Emperor of Atlantis is an absolute gem of 20th-century composition.

The plot draws upon more expressionistic elements in the construction of character and dialogue, accentuating thematic material over character development. While the work is too short to provide any sort of rounded discussion of its key themes, it admirably dissects notions of war, authority, propaganda, and the balance between life, love and death in a unique and interesting way.

The music of The Emperor of Atlantis could be likened to a blended combination of Messiaen, Poulenc, Berg and Strauss. The work is fiercely modern, in the 1940’s sense of the term. But what starts off feeling disjointed begins to settle into a distinctive style as the work progresses, finding that sweet spot of aesthetic beauty amongst the more dissonant explorations of tonality. The composition is raw and exposed, ultimately belying the oppressive context in which it was created, adding an extra dimension to the work.

The performances, by and large, are top notch. The ensemble sounds fantastic, although being located on the top level has a tendency to overpower the performers on occasion. Daniel Sumegi as Death gives the role the gravitas needed to sell the story, while Jun Zhang impresses as the lonely Harlequin, a clown that finds himself without a purpose, in a world without laughter or love. The only disappointment is Michael Heap as the Emperor. While Heap’s vocal talents shine in key moments, particularly in the Emperor’s final aria which is a clear standout, he never imbues the role with the sense of character that one looks for in the central protagonist, fading into the background in scenes where he should be the focus. He feels miscast, failing to capitalise on The Emperor’s madness and determination to gain absolute power while ridding the world of humanity.

The production is realised in an uncomplicated fashion, occupying the centre of the Perth Hebrew Congregation Synagogue. The static set, featuring individual pieces in the foreground and background, and video projection from Perth video artist Jennie Feyen, is contrasted with decidedly minimal lighting. While the sets are beautiful, the lighting is problematic. Set pieces jump between near darkness to a single flood light to a suspended array of 100W light bulbs, making it difficult to see what is happening on stage. This is an understandable limitation of the found space approach, but when it is difficult to ascertain what is going on – who is entering, who is exiting, who someone is – one wonders if another solution could not have been found.

But these criticisms are minor distractions from what is a terrific production of an underperformed work by some fantastic musicians. Thomas de Mallet Burgess and Chris van Tuinen are doing great things in Perth at the moment, and Lost and Found Opera are truly offering something different for audiences tired of seeing the same operas performed as part of the never-ending cycle of conventional repertoire in larger organisations. The Emperor of Atlantis is one of the most inventive productions you are likely to see this year.

The Emperor of Atlantis is at Perth Hebrew Congregation Synagogue June 12, 15 and 16. Tickets available here. Photography by Cam Campbell.