On paper, the current pairing by Chicago Opera Theater of two Central European and German one-act operas from 1943 appears jarring. Especially so when one was written in the Terezin concentration camp by a Jewish composer who was gassed the next year at Auschwitz, the other by a free man in Nazi Germany who went on to wealth and fame after the war and died in his native Munich in 1982.
But COT is all about risk-taking — “adventurous opera experiences,” they put it — and with Andreas Mitisek, the company’s Viennese general director, at the helm of the troupe, the stage direction and design of this double bill, there are many ways that the two works are able to make their own cases as music theater.
With a largely strong set of young singing actors, a solid and adaptable chamber orchestra and the idiomatic and seductive conducting of Francesco Milioto, COT immerses us in these contrasting musical worlds and biting social satires created in the same terrible year.
Viktor Ullmann might be called the lead composer of the Nazi “show camp” in the Czech lands where art was made and performed by detainees for international visitors and inspectors. His work “The Emperor of Atlantis” was created for the instruments and abilities available among the deportees, but the libretto of Petr Kien, also murdered, was deemed too controversial, and while the 45-minute “Legend in four scenes” might have been rehearsed, it was never presented until 1975, after its subsequently hidden manuscript was discovered.
Mitisek kept references to the death camp and to Hitler relatively minimal and did so sensibly. Milioto understands the kaleidoscopic, cabaret style of the piece — the 14-player orchestra even includes an alto sax and a banjo, as well as a keyboard that can offer different sounds.
The story — a turn on the idea of Death taking a holiday to punish human arrogance — depends very much on the quality of Death and the tyrannical Emperor Ueberall. Local bass-baritone David Govertsen used both his voice and his height to get Death’s power and sarcasm. Minnesota-based baritone Andrew Wilkowske (who came fully alive in the lead of the program’s second work, Carl Orff’s “The Clever One” [Die Kluge]) was oddly subdued in “Atlantis.”
COT stalwart bass-baritones Paul Corona and Neil Edwards were excellent human “Loudspeakers,” framing all the action. Tenor Bernard Holcomb and soprano Emily Birsan, both alumni of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center, previewed their breakouts in the Orff with supporting roles in the Ullmann.
8It was surprisingly interesting and rewarding to hear Orff’s comic opera work, known somewhat in Europe but almost never produced in the U.S. One can hear rhythmic ideas and the blocks of non-melodic sound that characterize his one enormous hit, “Carmina Burana” of 1937, and more than one audience member wondered aloud if Philip Glass might have slept as a boy with a recording of “The Clever One” under his pillow. Minimalism was pretty well-brewed here already.
Orff made his own libretto, based in part on a Grimm fairy tale, and (both works are performed here in good English translations and with English supertitles) he proves to be quite funny (as he did in portions of “Carmina”) and also quite adult. Wilkowske and Birsan, especially, are outstanding as The King, full of himself, and The Clever (Woman), brilliant and warm. Corona returns to lead a trio of Vagabonds (athletic comic roles), with baritone Matthan Ring Black and an almost Jerry Lewis-swallows-an-opera performance by Chicago tenor William Dwyer. Milioto and 18 pieces this time made the 85-minute work something of a musical revelation.
Mitisek’s other company, Southern California’s Long Beach Opera, premiered this pair of works in 2009, in the boiler room of the dry-docked Queen Mary of all places. COT is right in presenting this unusual program at DePaul University’s downtown Merle Reskin Theatre both because it is smaller and to spend less than the company would have had to pay the Harris Theater in Millennium Park for four performances and a rehearsal.