(Excerpt from Musical Pointers review of the 2004 Lucerne Festival – see here for the full review)
The main theatrical presentation during Lucerne Festival, and a resounding success, was Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, given by Lucerne Theatre in conjunction with Lake Lucerne’s shipping company, in a temporarily converted dry dock in the maritime industrial part of the lakeside, which you pass when walking to Wagner’s villa Triebschen, now a fascinating museum not to be missed.
Composed in Theresienstadt, the ‘cultural’ Nazi concentration camp, Der Kaiser von Atlantisnever reached performance before Ullmann and his cast were deported to Auschwitz where most of them were murdered. The only survivor was the singer who took the part of ‘Death’ who, in librettist Peter Kien’s reversal of actuality, lamented his powerlessness; no-one was dying in Atlantis.
The manuscript found its way to England, and the first production was in Amsterdam, 1975. The one act opera is at one and the same time located everywhere and nowhere specific, referring clearly to Nazi politics but transcending the historical elements bound up with Nazi persecution and ideas of world domination. The Emperor entered from the sea, in one of Dominique Mentha’s production’s several coups de theatre, isolated in a protective floating glass cubicle ‘to rule better’. He could be any paranoid, power-obsessed dictator, anywhere, anytime.
Excellently acted and sung at its final performance under John Axelrod’s sharp musical direction, the presentation did not shy away from the uncomfortable implications of this fable, and it managed to upstage some of the more traditional offerings of the festival’s Freedom and its Denial rubric with an emotionally intense work treating the paradoxical notion that death was on strike and his work temporarily in abeyance. When the Emperor died, normality ensued – Death recovered his power and the world resumes its mindless killings.
This production finishes with Death apparently walking away on the waves, an allusion to Christ walking on the water perhaps? Beyond the action we watched the peaceful scene across the lake, with brightly lit steamers carrying partying passengers on their evening cruises around Lake Lucerne.
Alexa and Peter Grahame Woolf