Viktor Ullmann´s breathtaking satire on fascism is set in Atlantis, where Emperor Uberall advocates total war against all, and even Death wishes to retire from his duties. The score is full of ironic brilliance, humour, poignancy, and an intriguing code of musical quotations from blues to Deutschland über Alles in the style of a Bach chorale.
Scene One: The Loudspeaker introduces every character and is answered by an orchestral interlude. Harlekin sings an aria of dissatisfaction at the way the world is going.
Death joins him in a duet about the loss of meaning in the present day and then sings mournfully of the time when he was young and war was an activity of glory rather than the current senseless slaughter. Death is interrupted by the Drummer Girl, companion to the Emperor, who conveys the monarch´s call for all-out war in a parody of the German national anthem. Death refuses to acquiesce.
Scene Two: A Dance of Death introduces the Emperor, who demands information from the front. Loudspeaker provides the news on behalf of the military and government ministries. The Emperor learns that people are being killed – but do not die. ‘Some bizarre disease has broken out. The soldiers aren´t able to die.’ The Emperor is horrified and issues a proclamation that turns the situation to his advantage, claiming credit for everyone´s ‘immunity’ to death. There follows a second Dance of Death.
Scene Three: We meet Bubikopf, the quintessential ‘Aryan’ maiden, and a soldier. They skirmish and he overpowers her. Bubikopf begs to be shot, but the soldier has fallen in love with her as does she with him a moment later. She sings of this epiphany as the Drummer Girl exhorts her to return to the service of the Emperor. All three then sing of love, war, and pride, Bubikopf and the soldier choosing love. The scene closes with a Dance for the Living Dead.
Scene Four: Loudspeaker advises the Emperor that rebel forces are gaining ground. There occurs an announcement from ‘another station’ that a dread physician has ‘healed our blindness’ and that a terrible retribution for horrendous acts will be exacted. At this, the Emperor, Harlekin, and the Drummer Girl, in a trio, ask what they have accomplished and what it is to be human. Death appears in the Emperor´s mirror, depicting himself as a gardener maintaining natural order against the bloody projects of the Emperor. At the penultimate moment, the Emperor asks that Death return to his work. Death agrees, but on one condition…
The opera ends with the Emperor´s farewell, and a four-part apostrophe in a Chorale of forgiveness drawn from JS Bach´s Ein Feste Burg. One shocking surprise remains.
GIVEN 1, 4, 7, 9 and 11 February 2009. Norman Rothstein Theatre