In the opening moments of Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, someone onstage announces that what we are about to see is “kind of an opera,” and this hits it on the mark. Less opera than theater, the works on this double bill’s opening night — the other was Carl Orff’s The Clever One (Die Kluge) —continue the Chicago Opera Theater’s recent trend of doing what they can to draw audience attention away from the pit and toward narrative and spectacle. But the spectacle often promises more than it can deliver, and there isn’t much to listen to. In this sense, the pairing of two one-act operas written in the year 1943 is as provocatively empty as the robot thing from a few years back: the pleasant buzz of the “political”, desperately appropriated under capitalist pressure, gives up any of the bravery and relevance obtained in the time these works were written.

Andrew Wilkowske (Emperor) and David Govertsen (Death) in The Emperor of Atlantis © Liz Lauren
Andrew Wilkowske (Emperor) and David Govertsen (Death) in The Emperor of Atlantis
© Liz Lauren

This is especially a shame in The Emperor of Atlantis, a four-scene act built on a premise as playful as it is genuinely biting: death has fled the world, leaving wounded soldiers to languish indefinitely in hospitals for the living dead. Yet the production drowns whatever political resonance the story might have for modern U.S. middle-class patrons — call it the rhetorical displacement of the scene of horror from death itself to the cultural and ultimately global conditions that create victimization — through an unthinking mash of politico-theatrical clichés, beginning with the tired visual language of German political theater.

Musically, Ullmann’s work is paper thin, providing in most places nothing more than a Shostakovich-esque military beat and tonal-with-distortions melody. Yet this mostly theatrical work raises the specter of opera in a number of instances, such as in the first encounter between the soldier (William Dwyer) and the maiden (Emily Birsan), who are thrust together from opposing camps after having guns thrust into their hands. The scene of murder shades, Tristan-like, into a scene of love. Later, the characters face the hall and bombastically announce the play’s moral, invoking above all the finale of Don Giovanni.

Emily Birsan (The Clever One) © Liz Lauren
Emily Birsan (The Clever One)
© Liz Lauren

The Clever One’s links to the operatic past, on the other hand, are more firmly rooted in musical style. The peasant’s opening aria is all Italianate buffa, announcing right off the bat the work’s attitude toward operatic pleasure. Orff’s score cobbles pragmatic genres of action together with lush exoticisms, giving this opera a much fuller figure than Ullmann’s lightly set play.

The singers, too, are for the most part better used in the evening's second half. Emily Birsan, reappearing as the titular clever daughter, is just as good as she was in the Ullmann but gets plenty more time to show off her emotionally direct and pearlescent voice. Andrew Wilkowske, on the other hand, improved dramatically as he switched from Ullmann’s Emperor to Orff’s King, finding a precision and security of tone in the comic character that freed him up remarkably.

The two operas share a basic set consisting of a set of stairs framing an enclosed space in the middle. In The Clever One, three giant vertical rolls of paper sit next to each other to form a constantly shifting tableau against which various landscapes and settings are projected. I liked the gesture of projecting a prison door painted in watercolor that was then cut open with a knife: the paper rolls allowed for such constant transformations. But the gesture of comic escape was also telling of the false seriousness and difficulty of the night as a whole. Brandishing a magic knife, these stagings of works written in a time of catastrophe (Ullmann, as the program notes euphemistically tell us, was murdered in Auschwitz after the Nazis stumbled upon rehearsals of this work) abstract and inoculate in equal measure, claiming historical heft but releasing themselves (and us) from the necessity of being disturbed.