Viktor Ullmann’s “one act play” Der Kaiser von Atlantis gets talked about a fair bit but fairly rarely performed. Operabase lists only three productions worldwide in the last five years. It was written in Theresienstadt to a libretto by Peter Kien and nether composer nor librettist survived the war. It’s quite short; well under an hour, and is usually seen as a parody of Hitler and the National Socialists. I think it’s quite a gentle parody though, especially given when and where it was written.
The plot concerns Kaiser Overall who lives alone in an enormous palace and communicates with the outside world by loudspeaker. At the beginning of the play Death and Harlequin are in an old people’s home and both feel past it. Nobody laughs at Harlequin anymore and Death has basically downed tools. This causes chaos. Overall, of course, rules by fear and now there is nothing to be afraid of. Prisoners can’t be executed and battles become farcical. In one scene the Soldier and the young girl Bubikopf meet on the battlefield and shoot each other to no effect so they fall in love. But it’s not as simple as that. Thousands now are suffering because they can’t die. Death agrees to resume normal service with Overall as his first customer. The survivors sing a chorale praising Death the Redeemer.
Musically it’s extremely eclectic with elements of jazz and cabaret, a fair bit of atonalism and some richly lyrical passages along with quotations from Mahler (Das Lied von der Erde), Bach (Ein feste Burg) and the Deutschlandlied. There’s also a fair bit of speech and some Sprechstimme. It’s a bit of a wild ride.
The CD recording was made at a live concert performance in the the Prinzregententheater in Munich in October 2021. The orchestra is the Münchner Rundfunkorchester with Patrick Hahn conducting. It’s a mostly young cast with the more experienced Adriasn Eröd as Overall. Bass Tareq Nazmi is pretty impressive as Death and the whole cast is very decent. It’s not a work I’m familiar with but the performance seems idiomatic.
The booklet has lots of information about the piece and a track listing but no libretto. Instead there’s a pretty detailed scene by scene, number by number summary. It works if one has some basic German but with none at all I think it would be hard going.
It’s available as physical CD or digitally in MP3, CD quality or Hi-res FLAC.
Catalogue number: BR Klassik BRK900339