Soprano lifts COT’s uneven double bill of wartime works

Sun Jun 01, 2014 at 4:40 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Emily Birsan in Carl Orff's "Die Kluge," which was presented by Chicago Opera Theater Saturday night at the Merle Reskin Theatre. Photo: Liz Lauren
Emily Birsan in Carl Orff’s “Die Kluge,” which was presented by Chicago Opera Theater Saturday night at the Merle Reskin Theatre. Photo: Liz Lauren

While the theme of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing “Truth to Power” festival is both nebulous and overstated, one could hardly ask for a more genuine and tragic example of an artist taking a courageous stand against powerful evil forces than that of Viktor Ullmann. The Austrian composer wrote Der Kaiser von Atlantis in 1943 while imprisoned in Theresienstadt, the German “model” concentration camp. When the camp authorities learned of the nature of Ullmann’s anti-Nazi musical allegory, the performance was canceled. Ullmann was ultimately sent to Auschwitz where he died in the gas chambers in 1944.

The Emperor of Atlantis was presented by Chicago Opera Theater Saturday night at the Merle Reskin Theatre, part of a double-bill of one-act works, with Carl Orff’s Die Kluge.

Like most works mounted in Andreas Mitisek’s tenure to date at COT, The Emperor of Atlantis is more of a theater piece than a genuine opera, heavy on dialogue with fleeting musical passages in its 50 minutes.

Most of Ullmann’s Theresienstadt works are lost, but he was clearly a gifted composer, as shown in his Chamber Symphony and string quartets.

The Emperor of Atlantis is an important and heartening historical document yet is not among Ullmann’s more inspired works—as an opera, it’s musically thin and cast in a kind of cabaret style, like Kurt Weill without the tunes. Brave as the antifascist parable is, the symbolic libretto—Death goes on strike due to the murderous polices of the Emperor Over-all—is leaden in its didacticism, and, perhaps most fatally for a satirical comedy, the work is profoundly unfunny. Ultimately, The Emperor of Atlantis is more feted today for what it represents and the tragic circumstances of its composition than for its inherent artistic merit. (It’s too bad that Mitisek didn’t pair Die Kluge with Orff’s Der Mond as a double bill, which would have made for a more successful and musically consistent evening.)

COT’s usual minimalist cost-effective staging was serviceable and the young cast, many from Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center, did a worthy job under Mitisek’s direction. As Emperor Uberall, Andrew Wilkowske sounded initially underpowered but rose to his final aria with aplomb. Baritone David Govertsen was a strong presence as a disaffected Death and Bernard Holcomb displayed a vibrant and flexible tenor as Harlequin. Paul Corona and Neil Edwards were stentorian and aptly annoying as the duo-narrator Loudspeakers. Cassidy Smith sounded shrill as The Drummer and as the two young lovers, the Soldier and Bubikopf, William Dwyer and Emily Birsan brought a fleeting moment of tender humanity. Apart from an overprominent snare drum, Francesco Milioto led a tight and responsive performance in the pit.

In stark contrast to Ullmann, Carl Orff continued with his work during the Nazi era and coexisted amiably with the Third Reich (the degree of his collaboration with the German government remains an object of ongoing dispute).

At 80 minutes, Orff’s Die Kluge, also written in 1943, is a more substantial work than The Emperor of Atlantis, both in terms of length and musical heft. The mythic plot, mined from German folklore, is pure piffle, concerning a woman—the title “Clever One”—who, to rescue her father, must marry the not-so-bright king and, Calaf-like, solve three riddles. To escape, she drugs his drink and the goofy king winds up trapped in a large chest, as the opera closes with the observation that, “No one can love and be wise.”

If Die Kluge was written by Orff as a crypto-anti-Hitler statement, it’s hard to fathom since the allegorical symbolism—a golden pestle, a missing donkey and a trio of comic-relief tramps—is more impenetrable than illuminating. Yet Orff’s music is largely delightful, scored with typical panache and at times echoing Carmina Burana in its restless, jumpy rhythmic insistence.

With projections and characters drawing on three large scrolling paper reels, the “production” for Die Kluge offered more varied visuals than for the Ullmann. Both works were presented in English translations, which sacrificed a certain idiomatic flavor.

To date COT in the Mitisek era has not exactly been noted for great singing—or for singing at all since Mitisek seems more interested in the theatricality of his chosen repertoire than for their vocal opportunities or musical quality.

Yet soprano Emily Birsan in the title role of the unnamed “Clever One” brought terrific vocal gleam and the kind of superbly expressive singing that has been largely absent at COT in recent seasons. Mitisek’s static treatment of her character as robotic archetype offered few dramatic opportunities yet Birsan’s lovely singing of her lullaby to the narcotized king was the high point of a rather uneven evening.

Govertsen was again excellent as her father, the Peasant. In his white suit, as a capitalist cigar-smoking King, Wilkowske proved more impressive here as the bullying, unlikeable monarch. One early vocal entrance apart, Holcomb was solid as the Donkeyman. Despite their manic mugging as the drunken Vagabonds, William Dwyer, Matthan Ring Black and Paul Corona brought a barbershop quartet-like mellifluousness to their ensemble moments. Miliota’s energetic conducting and fine textural clarity provided Orff’s score with superb advocacy.

The Emperor of Atlantis and The Clever One run through June 8.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Soprano lifts COT’s uneven double bill of wartime works”

  1. Posted Jun 02, 2014 at 2:03 pm by Dan Shea

    We are looking forward to the Wednesday showing of this twin bill from 1943, especially for the singing – Emily Birsan was here in Madison twice last month, for the Mozart Requiem and then for a Gershwin-Bernstein program that was a treat for the ears and eyes too, with Emily taking conductor DeMain for a mid-aria waltz across the stage, great fun!

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