To those unfamiliar with Victor Ullman’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder Die Tod-Verweigerung (The Emperor of Atlantis, or The Abdication of Death) the story of the work’s inception is almost as gripping as the libretto itself. Whilst imprisoned in the concentration camp at Theresianstadt during 1943, Ullman and librettist Peter Kien collaborated on the work, a parable pertaining strongly to the political situation of the day.

The plot, in brief: a Speaker introduces the main players, and Harlequin and Death commiserate about better times. Assisted by the Drummer, Kaiser Overall – generally seen as a Hitler-figure – declares an absolute war in which everyone will fight and nobody will survive. Death feels that his role has been challenged and refuses to take any more souls; hanged men do not perish and soldiers killed in battle continue on in limbo. Moments of hope appear in the form of two soldiers who fall in love and dream of a better world, refusing to fight. Revolts break out against the Kaiser, who finally accepts Death’s offer: Death will resume his duties if the Kaiser will be his first victim. The wounded and suffering are granted peace.

The plotline alone is intense, but the fact that it was written and rehearsed in a concentration camp make avoiding seeing Overall as a very thinly veiled Hitler and the Drummer a maniacal Eva Braun nearly impossible. The officials at Theresianstadt also recognized the parallels, and the piece was never performed during Ullman’s lifetime. Both he and Kien were gassed the following year at Auschwitz. Reference is made to this in the powerful close of the production, where all characters remove their costumes to reveal striped internment garb as they await their end. Similarly, Death’s robe is decorated with black and white portraits, and framed portraits are placed at the base of the tree which dominates the stage at the opening and closing of the piece.

The strength of the production lies in some of the visual images created by the production team of Rainer Vierlinger (director), Susanna Boehm (designs) and Franz Tschek (lighting) and particularly the beautiful video work by Cosimo Miorelli which functioned at times like live drawing, combining images to fill in the gaps and comment on the story. This gave a dynamic element to the interludes, some of which are normally filled by dance. Though not all of the scenic elements hung together in appearance or effect, there were some interesting images – the tree being raised when Death abdicates and the massive accounting strips hanging from the ceiling most notably. The massive pile of sand in the middle of the stage might not have been absolutely necessary, particularly as I cannot even imaging how miserable rehearsing in it made the cast and crew.

Ullman uses a blend of popular music, classical and paraphrase, such as that of the Lutheran “A Mighty Fortress is our God” that puts him not only in association with Schoenberg but also with Weill. The scoring reflected the instruments he had at his disposal – and includes an interesting mix of strings, brass, percussion as well as alto sax, banjo and harpsichord. It was realized effectively by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra under the musical direction of Julien Vanhoutte. That being said, even from the second row there were serious balance issues, likely a combination of staging and stage design choices, vocal technique and orchestral volume. Instead of Kaiser’s dramatic opening, the choice was made to insert another Ullman composition, Nr. 2 from Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke, presumably Ullman’s final work, which functioned as a sort of overture.

Sadly, the largest disappointment in this performance was the singing, which was not of the quality we have come to expect from the Theater an der Wien’s “Junges Ensemble”. While guests Dumitru Madarasan (der Tod) and Unnsteinn Árnason (Lautsprecher) were well-cast and brought vocal and dramatic prowess and focus to the evening, the only member of the repertory cast who did not disappoint was soprano Frederikke Kampmann, singing the most thankful role of the work, Bubikopf, the bob-haired soldier. Though the other cast members most certainly have fantastic qualities, these were not the roles for them, or perhaps they were not healthy or prepared. In terms of diction, timbre, accuracy and/or presence a lot was left to be desired.