COT’s ‘Clever One’ and ‘Emperor of Atlantis’ Balance Fantasy and the Grotesque

Bernard Holcomb (Harlequin) and David Govertsen (Death) in The Emperor of Atlantis. Credit : Liz Lauren

All authentic fairytales balance the fantastic with the grotesque. Chicago Opera Theater‘s current double-bill of German one-act operas, Victor Ullman’s The Emperor of Atlantis and Carl Orff’s The Clever One, are no exception. Both works, written in 1943, satirize oppression and dictatorship from vastly different points of view. Ullman wrote Emperor during his imprisonment at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, while Orff composed Clever One for the Frankfurt Opera in Germany. Contrapuntist and I had the opportunity to see COT’s opening-night production of these operas on May 31 at the Merle Ruskin Theatre of Depaul University.

The evening began with The Emperor of Atlantis.  This work’s satiric portrayal of fascism is what ultimately sent Ullman to his death.  After overhearing the final rehearsal in 1944, SS officers were so incensed that they shut down production. All of the people involved in the opera, including their families, were shipped to Auschwitz to perish in the gas chambers.

The opera takes place in the fantastical country of Atlantis, in which commedia dell’arte characters are transposed against a grotesque realm reminiscent of a German cabaret. Emperor Overall advocates war amongst everyone, with no survivors. Death retires from his duties in protest, leaving the sick and injured unable to die.

The cast’s solid singing transcended the perplexing storyline, which labors heavily under symbolism due to the circumstances under which it was written. Paul Corona and Neil Edwards were both outgoing and creepy as the Loudspeakers, who serve as ringmasters and narrators. Bernard Holcomb easily swung back and forth between manic and depressive emotions as Harlequin. David Govertson emitted sinister power in his role as Death. Cassidy Smith, playing the Drummer, personified the seductiveness of war in a leather bustier, garters, and thigh highs. Andrew Willkowske embodied distant authoritarianism as Emperor Overall and did a good job of working his puppet (more on that later). William Dwyer and Emily Birsan sang sweetly as a soldier and the girl Bubikopf from the opposite enemy camp who begin to fall in love.

Conductor Francesco Milioto and the COT Orchestra did a wonderful job of navigating the jazzy, dissonant, and sparsely orchestrated score.

Andrew Wilkowske (Emperor Overall) in The Emperor of Atlantis with his unusual puppet.

One element which left me scratching my head was the puppet that Wilkowske used in his role as the Emperor. In one hand, he held a gray, googly-eyed head which looked like a cross between Gollum from Lord of the Rings and Squidward from SpongeBob Squarepants. His other hand had a matching gray fist and leather sleeve. Perhaps it was meant to represent a puppet government, or the Emperor as the human behind the “dictator”. Whatever the case, the puppet head was more distracting and goofy than anything else.

The Clever One brought a refreshing sense of levity from after the gravity of the first half. This opera comes from a Brothers Grimm fairytale about a foolish king bested by a shrewd peasant woman. Like Atlantis, this opera also satirizes a dictator. But whereas Atlantis exists mostly in a dictator’s dark world with occasional flashes of brightness, Clever lives in a fantastic realm where Technicolor slapstick characters mask a sinister undercurrent of despotism.

The casting for The Clever One created some interesting parallels with Atlantis. Andrew Wilkowske, previously the Emperor, is now the King; Emily Birsan, previously a soldier’s love interest, becomes the Clever One who marries the King; Paul Corona, one of the Loudspeakers, is now one of three Vagabonds who comment on the story and plot against the Donkeyman. Bernard Holcomb has traded in the manic Harlequin to become the clownish Donkeyman. The remaining characters, who do not necessarily echo those in Atlantis include David Govertson as the Peasant, Neil Edwards as the Jailer, William Dwyer and Matthan Ring Black as the two other Vagabonds, and Christopher Remmel as the Muleman.

Vocally, Birsan was the highlight of this opera. She sang with unerring pitch and presented a layered portrayal of a woman with the demeanor of a porcelain doll and the brain of Machiavelli. Another bright spot was Govertson, who rattled off some impressive patter during his aria. Corona, Dwyer, and Ring Black adeptly presented fine singing and physical comedy all at once.

Andrew Wilkowske (King), the three vagabonds William Dwyer, Matthan Black and Paul                                    Corona, and Emily Birsan, (Clever One) in The Clever One

The unsung hero of this opera was the clever animation and puppetry by award-winning designer Sean T. Cawelti. Animated graphics were projected on the three large scrolls of paper which served as scenery. The simple  design and bright colors gave the impression that the characters were living inside a child’s drawing of a fairytale. But the scrolls weren’t there just for appearances. The singers interacted with the paper in multiple ways such as cutting a square to create a window in a jailhouse through which the Peasant could poke his head, and writing on the paper with spray paint. Later, a change in lighting transformed the papers into screens behind which the three Vagabonds performed shadow puppetry. After a scene, the scrolls would roll back and present a fresh surface for the next design.

I would definitely recommend attending COT’s The Emperor of Atlantis and The Clever One. The delicate balance of the fantastic and the grotesque provide thought-provoking insights into the mindset of those who could only protest through music. The remaining performances take place on June 4, 6, and 8 at The Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 East Balbo. Tickets range from$35-$125 and may be purchased at chicagooperatheater.org.

Photos from top: Bernard Holcomb (Harlequin) and David Govertsen (Death) in The Emperor of Atlantis; Andrew Wilkowske (Emperor Overall) in The Emperor of Atlantis;  Andrew Wilkowske (King), the three vagabonds William Dwyer, Matthan Black and Paul Corona, and Emily Birsan, (Clever One) in The Clever One.  Credit: Liz Lauren

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