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Opera Review

A common theme, but the pairing still shocks

May 11, 2009|Chris Pasles

Long Beach Opera has a long history of audacious, innovative programming, but its latest pairing, Viktor Ullmann's "The Emperor of Atlantis" and Carl Orff's "The Clever One," comes close to going off the charts.

Both works were composed in 1943 and share the common themes of dictatorship and ruthless repression. But the similarities end there.

"Emperor" is a dark, complex political allegory, composed in the Nazi German "showcase" concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezin). The second is a comic Grimm's fairy tale, written by the ever-popular Orff (think "Carmina Burana") who never joined the Nazi Party but who benefited during its regime.

The shock of juxtaposing these works, seen Friday in the Ship Hull of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, lingered long after the performance.

First billed by the Nazis as a Jewish retirement resort, Terezin was actually a way station for transport to the death camps. Cultural life somehow flourished there because of the large number of artists and musicians interred in the camp, including Ullmann and his librettist, Petr Kien.

Their opera, subtitled "Death Abdicates," was scheduled to be performed -- until SS officers saw the dress rehearsal. They became so outraged at its anti-Nazi theme that they immediately shut it down and shipped Ullmann, Kien, the entire cast, orchestra and their families to Auschwitz, where Ullmann perished. The score survived, although it was not premiered until 1975.

The story is simple. The tyrannical Emperor Ueberall declares a universal war in which there are to be no survivors. Death, however, is so outraged at this usurpation of his power that he refuses to perform his function. So a hanged man twists forever on the gallows, even after he is shot. Suicides fail. Opposing soldiers cannot slay one another; instead, they discover mutual humanity and even love. The world mostly, though, agonizes in a limbo between life and death. Eventually, Ueberall, chastened and humanized, capitulates to Death's demand that he sacrifice himself first so the others can die. In a final musical allusion, in a work filled with musical references, the cast sings an echo of Bach's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" Cantata. But the final line alters the first of the Ten Commandments to read, "The great and sovereign name of Death must not be lightly taken!"

At the Queen Mary performance, the audience walked down two flights of stairs to get to the floor of the former boiler room. The set was a small stage, on which stood two stark bunk beds, grim reminders of concentration camp life. The orchestra, led by company artistic director Andreas Mitisek, was positioned behind the set.

The cast of eight was universally strong. Roberto Perlas Gomez was the Emperor. Dean Elzinga was a superb Death. Peabody Southwell was the sexy Drummer. Doug Jones was the inebriated Harlequin. Timur Bekbosunov was the Soldier. Suzan Hanson was the Girl Soldier. Jesse Merlin and Mark Bringelson were the two Loudspeakers.

Because of the ship hull's empty acoustics, the singers had to work hard in projecting, so they were unable to modulate Sonja Lyndon's English translation as much as they might have wanted. The orchestra too at times sounded distant and underpowered, and many musical details went unheard. But the performance still made a strong impact.

Orff's "The Clever One" suffered less from these problems, partly because, even in Mitisek's smaller rescoring of the work, the percussive drive and diatonic simplicity of the music came through. The singers also moved all over the place.

With a few new singers, the "Emperor" cast revealed unexpected comic talents in Orff's tale of a wise peasant woman becoming Queen by answering the tyrant King's three obscure riddles. Gomez was the King. Hanson was the Peasant's daughter. Elzinga was the Peasant. Bekbosunov, Benito Galindo and Merlin were the three commedia dell'arte Vagabonds. Bringelson was the Jailer. Andrew Fernando played the deceitful Man with the Mule. Jones was the wronged Man with the Donkey.

The production itself was a poor-theater delight, with minimal props and costumes (by Ivy Y. Chou) and unwinding sheets of poster paper serving as a witty backdrop. In an ideal world, Long Beach Opera wouldn't have to operate as a poor theater. But at least Mitisek knows how to create magic with minimal means. It boggles the mind to consider what he might do with a decent budget.

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'The Emperor of Atlantis'/ 'The Clever One'

Where: Long Beach Opera, the Hull of the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach

When: Noon and 4 p.m. Sunday

Price: $45 to $95

Contact: (562) 432-5934; or www.longbeachopera.org

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