Ullmann’s Emperor of Atlantis in Lyon

Viktor Ullmann’s Emperor of Atlantis is an elusive work. Fantasy or allegory on death and political power, should it be played as a comic, grotesque parable or else as a dramatic exploration of tyranny and brutality from which the only release is death? The Lyon presentation, as part of its Festival pour l’humanité, opted unambiguously for the latter and understandably so. What Ullmann may have intended is irrelevant since it is impossible to ignore the fact that it was written in the Terezin ghetto-camp and that subsequently its composer was murdered in Auschwitz. This performance was, by a long measure, the most convincing and powerful account of the piece I have yet encountered. Director Richard Brunel and his designer Marc Lainé placed the production in a concentration camp with its commandant as the Emperor. This might seem an obvious device, but it was carried through with so much ingenuity and so many brilliant touches that the effect was overwhelming. Many of the images stay in the mind. It opens with the slouching Emperor listening to the wary conductor and orchestra play Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. The duo Death and the Harlequin are like the two tramps in Waiting for Godot, or a music hall turn, musing on life and death. The Emperor’s palace becomes the headquarters of the Nazis, a circular table covered with telephones, as the extermination of opposing forces is planned with military efficiency. He is revealed as a person with infantile obsessions, stroking a rat and playing with a toy train set. The audience is not spared the brutality of the regime as appeals for tolerance are violently suppressed. Yet, after the Emperor has himself accepted death as the only solution, the final tableau, with snow descending on the remaining characters to accompany purifying death, is one of reassuring lyricism. Ullman’s inventive eclectic score was ably conducted by Vincent Renaud. The soloists drawn predominantly from the Lyon Opéra Studio were all excellent, singing confidently and acting with energy and conviction. This performance, with its clarity and dramatic coherence, for the first time led me to the belief that the work is a masterpiece.