At the start of The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death, the character of the Loudspeaker directly addresses the audience, describing the roughly hour-long work as “a kind of opera in four scenes” and laying out the characters and starting point. What the Loudspeaker doesn’t do is prepare the audience for the psychological and philosophical reckoning it is about to receive.b

The Emperor of Atlantis packs a punch. Composed by Viktor Ullmann with a libretto by Peter Kien around 1943 while the two men were imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt – and finished shortly before they both were sent to Auschwitz where they died – the compact work meditates on totalitarian power, the benevolent necessity of death, the arrogance of men who presume themselves gods, and dreams for a future where love, not war, is inevitable. Oper Köln’s new production in the Außenspielstätte am Offenbachplatz’s small theater was a relatively straightforward but effective presentation of a powerfully dramatic work that showed off the house’s first-rate singers and left the audience appropriately unsettled.

Director Eike Ecker’s concept kept the opera’s themes accessible on the surface, while reminding the audience that things are not always what they seem. (Librettist Kien was also an artist whose drawings captured the true brutality of life in Theresienstadt, not the staged version in the “model” camp that Nazis presented to the outside world). Scenes with numerous cast members particularly shone, such as the Drummer’s announcement of total war for all until death. It visually invoked the mass propaganda speeches of the Third Reich, fittingly reflecting the scene’s musical quotation of the German national anthem and causing a visceral response. Another great moment of complexity was the Scene 3 trio, in which the Drummer and the two enamoured soldiers express opposite emotions as skull-masked dancers eerily flashed legs and scythes while dancing to Weimar-esque strains.

Athol Farmer's choreography uniquely stamped the production, adding an extra layer of symbolic expression that supported the fast-paced plot. Darko Petrovic’s stark, red-black-white color scheme and stage design, with walkways criss-crossing a sunken small pit, made good use of limited space, though the ominous black bell hanging from the ceiling visually cramped the action for viewers in the theater’s last raised rows. Andreas Grüter’s lighting was fitting until the very end, when the raising of lights during the final group chorale – perhaps an attempt to connect the legendary world of Atlantis to the present world – jolted the audience out of its immersion in the story.

Some have argued that the opera's libretto is stronger than its music. The plot grapples with profound questions that are made all the more pointed, urgent and historically painful due to the circumstances under which Kein and Ullmann collaborated. But Ullmann’s music no less reflects contemporary influences or fails to bring out emotional tension. The unusual instruments in the chamber orchestra, solidly led by Rainer Mühlbach, reflect the limited resources Ullmann had in the camp when writing the score. The orchestra occasionally overpowered singers but never morphed into an unclear wall of sound, as can sometimes happen in small spaces. Mühlbach appropriately tempered instrumental solos and allowed Ullmann’s various musical influences, from brushes with atonality to 1930s cabaret extravagance and an ironic lullaby, to come through distinctly.

Despite the libretto being printed in the program, the performance could have benefited from supertitles, given that the text drives substantial plot and character development in a very short amount of time. Not all the singers’ words were always clearly audible. Still, the cast was roundly strong in voice.

As Emperor Overall, Nikolay Borchev showed great musical expression from beginning to end, and a slightly staid physical start blossomed in Scene 4 as the Emperor goes mad. Lucas Singer was a commanding Death. He brought out the character’s pride in his role of taking life but could have emphasized Death’s tiredness and vulnerability slightly more. Martin Koch delivered super smooth vocal lines and outstanding diction as Harlequin while Judith Thielsen showing off her impressive and even range as a powerful Drummer girl who revelled in her ability to be manipulative. The soldier-lover couple, Claudia Rohrbach and Dino Lüthy, blended beautifully in their duet. Their convincing acting paired with tonal purity and precision made their scene a genuinely poignant moment of hope and love.

Director Ecker needed to coax more nuance from his performers in a work which, while short, offers an incredible amount of character material to work with. But the fact that five members of the musically top-notch six-person cast are members of the Oper Köln’s ensemble or opera studio show that the company is a place for great talent.