Philip White, the new Head of Opera at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is keen to embrace unfamiliar work, creating a voyage of discovery for all. A double-bill of Holst’s one act opera Sāvitri and Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis both feature the character Death in pivotal roles providing the link between the ancient Indian Sanskrit of the Mahabharata and a subversive opera written in the Theresienstadt internment camp. The beautiful simplicity of Holst set against the biting satire of Ullmann was all set to provide an evening of great contrasts.

Rebecca Godley (Sāvitri) © RCS | Robert McFadzean
Rebecca Godley (Sāvitri)
© RCS | Robert McFadzean

Sāvitri, wife of woodcutter Satyavān is visited by Death who tells her that he will come for her husband. When her husband returns, he says the visit is only an illusion or Māyā, but is suddenly struck down. Sāvitri, desolate, negotiates a pact with Death to grant her a full life, which she is given, but then she argues that a full life includes her husband. Death is cheated and Satyavān awakens in his wife’s arms.

Far offstage, Mark Nathan’s Death calls to Sāvitri, eventually joining Rebecca Godley’s Sāvitri on Louie Whitemore’s sparse and effective grassy mound with five spindly tree trunks, beautifully lit by Davy Cunningham. Nathan’s authoritative Death, an oleaginous onstage presence, was sung with rich lyrical baritone menace. Godfrey’s lighter soprano came into her own broadening out in the later, more Wagnerian passages. I was impressed with tenor Thomas Kinch’s Satyavān with his clear descriptions of Māyā but disappointed that the wordless female chorus was replaced by a synthesiser, which gave the other worldly a decidedly cheesy feel. Lionel Friend conducted the 12-strong orchestra with precision, guiding the simple slight tale to its happy conclusion of the triumph of love over death.

David Lynn (Harlequin), Colin Murray (Emperor) and Joanna Harries (Drummer) © RCS | Robert McFadzean
David Lynn (Harlequin), Colin Murray (Emperor) and Joanna Harries (Drummer)
© RCS | Robert McFadzean

Viktor Ullmann’s Emperor of Atlantis was written in Theresienstadt, but immediately banned by the Nazi authorities as subversive. Ullmann and librettist Peter Kien did not survive, but the score was passed on through friends resulting in the opera only receiving its first performance in 1975. It is a piece that balances satire, surrealism and anarchy reflecting the political situation of the time with musical echoes of Weill, Schoenberg and Shostakovich. 

The characters are introduced by Loudspeaker: Death, Harlequin (representing life), the Emperor Overall and his drummer, and two soldiers, one a bob-haired girl. The Emperor, assisted by the drummer, decrees that there will be a world war, fought to the death with no survivors. Death is furious that his role is being usurped... so he goes on strike. The Emperor receives reports that wounded soldiers are surviving, hanged men are doing their best to die. Two soldiers from opposing sides meet, one the bob-haired girl, and when they have tried unsuccessfully to shoot each other, they fall in love. Eventually, Emperor Overall, maddened by thousands of people stuck in limbo between life and death, is forced to do a deal.

Colin Murray (Emperor Overall) and Joanna Harries (Drummer) © RCS | Robert McFadzean
Colin Murray (Emperor Overall) and Joanna Harries (Drummer)
© RCS | Robert McFadzean
Musically, the score is for what instruments were to hand in Theresienstadt – including banjo, guitar, saxophone and harmonium with assorted percussion, and Lionel Friend kept them tight, well-drilled and sharp as a tack. Director Caroline Clegg chose to play out the action in a deserted theatre, a wonderfully drab set by Louie Whitmore, full of surprises, stumbled upon with glee by the characters in brown overalls wildly waving torches until the light switch is located. Costumes are found, the make-up box is raided (it is a messy production) and various props hanging about are used to artfully create the four scenes.

The ensemble worked very successfully together as a team, the singing generally excellent, in English with clear diction. Brazilian Pedro Ometto was a boisterous master of ceremonies, answering the Emperor’s increasingly frantic phone calls in various guises, perched high up a ladder in front of a moon and barking down an old fashioned loud hailer. It is an opera with bizarre twists: David Lynn’s Harlequin wants to die, but Jerome Knox’s Death says he is not on the list, so they sing and dance a music hall number. Most striking was the circular table of maps, built round Colin Murray’s Emperor, a large bearded figure resplendent in red and gold uniform jacket and ostrich feathered helmet, a fat controller grabbing frantically at telephones as his world plan falls apart and photos of people start to tumble from the roof. As Death is persuaded to resume his role, the Emperor tells Joanna Harries' drummer he will return, dreaming of a utopian place where men have not destroyed things. Finally, the cast don red noses, clutch photographs of themselves to their chests and sing a wonky version of Ein’ feste Burg.

The Emperor of Atlantis is supposed to be edgy and disturbing, and this production captured the unsettling parallels perfectly, allowing us to take our own conclusions away.

****1