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Der Kaiser von Atlantis

RIVERSIDE, CT
Greenwich Music Festival
6/10/09

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Peter Tantsits (Harlekin) in Greenwich Music Festival's Der Kaiser von Atlantis
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Phares as Ullmann's Emperor in Connecticut

A fter an impressive Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria last summer, this year's Greenwich Music Festival, entitled "Out of Darkness," concentrated on the music produced in Terezín, the Nazi "show camp" where many Jewish artists were sent before transport to death camps. Terezín (Theresienstadt), located in a small city northwest of Prague, engendered quite a variety of music; the Greenwich Festival presented choral and chamber works, plus a song recital by mezzo Laurie Rubin. The operatic centerpiece was Viktor Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis, an allegorical cabaret-style work halted at the dress-rehearsal stage in 1944; the S.S. understood all too well its stance toward militarism and packed the composer and librettist Petr Kien off summarily to death.

Festival cofounder and conductor Robert Ainsley argued in an admirable spoken introduction that Ullmann's work must be treated not as a requiem but as a vibrant, multiply allusive work enjoyable on its own terms. The best proof of this came in the fine playing of the International Contemporary Ensemble under his aegis and the impressively mounted, visually memorable and well-sung staging by Ted Huffman. Huffman's direction stressed the circus-like theatricality of the piece: the Prologue for "Loudspeaker" (the impressive Jeffrey Tucker, who doubled as Death, in which guise he channeled his imposing bass amusingly into various telephonic guises) recalls both Pagliacci and Lulu. Deploying the six disciplined singers - elegantly choreographed in slow motion by Zack Winokur - to manipulate the simple (largely red) props and Brechtian banners made the best of the fairly basic stage of the Theater at St. Catherine's. Marcus Doshi's sophisticated lighting permitted silhouetted mime scenes on both sides of his draped-back curtain.

Ainsley capably integrated the contributions of ICE - playing solos and as an ensemble - with the strongly cast singers. The only holdover from last year's opera, Katherine Pracht, made the move from Monteverdi's flighty Melanto to Ullmann's scarifying Trommler. Given an Expressionist bipartite wig and Joker-like grimace by Bridget Ritzinger (who had most of the cast in clown white that still allowed for much expressiveness), Pracht reveled in the most striking of Paul Carey's fine, apt costumes - army jacket over flared skirt, with terrifying extended plastic arms. She loped about exhorting men to battle like a nightmare Preziosilla; Verdi's vivandière might well suit Pracht's penetrating voice, comfortable at wide range extremes.

As the bloodthirsty titular Emperor, Keith Phares made a dashing figure even in clown makeup, singing with impressive tonal clarity, dynamic shading and ease on top. His classy baritone contrasted well with Tucker's earthier instrument in their amusing exchanges; his final monologue proved eloquent. Gifted, seemingly fearless tenor Peter Tantsits (Harlekin) proved agile and expressive vocally, physically and facially. Rachelle Durkin made an appealing Bubikopf (a female soldier) with a penetrating, attractive soprano and (except for one ensemble high note) impressively clean attack. Opposite her, tenor Matt Morgan (Soldier) offered touching boy-next-door presence but was slightly challenged by topmost notes and German phonetics. Deserved standing ovations greeted the committed team of artists.

DAVID SHENGOLD
 

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