The circumstances of the composition of the one-act opera by Viktor Ullmann The Kaiser of Atlantis – in the artistic ghetto of Terezín, in 1943 44 – are quite well known (Michael Oliver briefly mentioned them in his review of the first recording). The basic storyline, however, could be repeated in light of current events in Ukraine: Death, appalled by a cynical warmongering where fighters no longer dress to die in his honor, goes on strike until the bellicose Emperor Overall agrees to be the first to die. and lift the blockade on mortality. Dress Death in a Soviet-style military uniform (instead of the Austrian imperial clothes that Ullmann and his librettist Peter Kien designed), and the opera translates perfectly to 2022.
Recorded live in Munich in front of a very quiet audience last October, Patrick Hahn’s vision of The Kaiser is more lyrical than Lothar Zagrosek’s pioneering interpretation, part of Decca’s groundbreaking Entartete Musik series. Hahn also restores the original’s harpsichord in place of Zagrosek’s favorite piano, which underscores the fragile quality of the music. Hahn also brings out the satirical elements, in a reading of remarkable lucidity, deftly underlining the various allusions – to popular songs, to the Austrian “emperor’s anthem” (which the Nazis had hijacked) and to the anthem “Ein’ feste Burg” – for anyone to hear. The playing of the Munich Radio Orchestra is in tune with the times, Weill’s resonances in particular strongly articulated.
With so much spoken dialogue, the lack of a libretto is disappointing, despite a reasonably detailed synopsis. Hahn uses the darker alternative ending, “Der Krieg ist aus”, although I cannot find any justification for this in the booklet; Zagrosek used Ullmann’s primary ending which until then had always seemed more efficient to me (adding the alternative ending to be complete plus the three Hölderlin Lieder as an additional charge). In Hahn’s hands, the alternative works wonderfully. The cast is uniformly strong, with Tareq Nazmi making a fine death, even if it doesn’t quite match Walter Berry’s life-weariness for Zagrosek, and Juliana Zara and Johannes Chum (who double as Harlequin) do fervent lovers of the battlefield. Christel Loetzsch is strong as a drummer. Great sound too.