Concentration camp inmates must have had many wild fantasies, but few wilder than that of Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien: that Death would go on strike, robbing the evil overlord of his power and reducing him to irrelevance. And rarely have such wild fantasies been turned into opera, which makes Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis) an extraordinary musical creation in itself, let alone the fact that it was actually composed and rehearsed in the camp at Terezin, aka Theresienstadt. But not performed there: the Nazi authorities eventually wised up to the bitterness of the satire with the omnipotent-turned-toothless Emperor Overall an obvious caricature of Hitler.

Thomas Johannes Meyer (Emperor Overall)
© BBC | Mark Allan

But Der Kaiser von Atlantis isn’t just interesting because of its history – the satire is coruscating and Ullmann’s eclectic music is superbly compelling. The work may have its flaws, but it stands completely on its own two feet, especially so when it is played as powerfully as it was last night at the Barbican, by a select group of players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Josep Pons.

Soraya Mafi (Bubikopf), Oliver Johnston (Soldier), Josep Pons and the BBCSO
© BBC | Mark Allan

In the course of an hour, Ullmann’s music spans many styles and moods. There’s plenty to remind one of the Berlin cabaret of 20s and 30s Kurt Weill, with its four-note harmonies and syncopation. There are escapist lyrical numbers of aching beauty, most notably the interlude when Oliver Johnston’s Soldier and Soraya Mafi’s Maiden turn from battlefield enemies to falling in love. But the most memorable of the music is simply of raw power, providing the opportunity for the voices to make the story bite. And last night’s cast certainly delivered bite. As the Emperor, who decrees a state of total enduring war, baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer was strong, cold, clinical. Since the ruler is in permanent self-isolation in his palace, his only contact with the outside world comes via “the Loudspeaker”, who voices the information arriving from various servants: bass-baritone Derrick Ballard delivered subtlety with a particularly acid touch. Most potent of all, however, was Henry Waddington’s Death, who makes it quite clear that the job of deciding when people die belongs to him and not to the Emperor. Waddington was hugely impressive at the low end of his range (the role goes very low indeed) and his apology aria, explaining his nature and why it is necessary that he exists, was one of the most compelling pieces of opera I’ve seen in a long time. He provided penetrating comedy also, complaining that war isn’t what it used to be in the days when he would rock up to battlefields filled with brightly coloured uniforms and gaily caparisoned horses.

Henry Waddington (Death) and Robert Murray (Harlequin)
© BBC | Mark Allan

This was billed as a concert performance but was rather more than that. Although the singers were in black concert dress, director Kenneth Richardson gave each props to delineate their character and the singers were very much acting their roles. With excellent support from Hanna Hipp as the Drummer Girl and Robert Murray as Death’s sad friend, Harlequin, and excellently balanced playing from the musicians under Pons, the performance made for compulsive watching right the way up to the final chorale in which four singers celebrate the Emperor’s Pauline conversion and departure.

The real-life story didn’t have such a happy ending. Both composer and librettist died in Auschwitz in 1944: Ullmann was 46 years old, Kien just 25.

Guildhall School Musicians play Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time
© BBC | Mark Allan

This concert was part of the BBC’s “Total Immersion” day in memory of Terezin. Their choice of work to conclude the day rang somewhat strange: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, linked to Der Kaiser von Atlantis only by having also been composed during imprisonment by the Germans, but in a standard PoW camp, from which Messiaen was released – a very different kettle of fish from the story of Terezin. Messiaen's work is meditative and redemptive in a way that is thoroughly Christian. Writing as a Jew, much as I love Christian sacred music most of the time, I found it difficult to reconcile the paeans to the power of Jesus with Ullmann’s acid grief. Whether for that reason or merely that it had been a long day, many audience members didn’t return after the interval.

Still, the Quartet for the End of Time is a magical piece of music and received a creditable performance by a quartet from the Guildhall School, its high energy passages a little subdued, particularly set against the Ullmann, but its slow meditative movements stretching our thoughts into a calm space to send us home somewhat soothed.