Ullmann Der Sturz des Antichrist
Even in the desperate conditions of the Nazi’s Theresienstadt concentration camp, Viktor Ullmann followed a more recognizably German compositional path than his fellow internees. Schoenberg was his teacher but he was never a slavish Schoenbergian and the stylistic variety of his work is one of its more notable features (or weaknesses; it depends on your point of view). Following several successful stagings of Ullmann’s Theresienstadt opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, his first opera Der Sturz des Antichrist was given a belated premiere in Bielefeld last year. This recording was made in conjunction with that production and is a welcome, if not ideally polished, representation of Ullmann’s prophetic music drama – an allegorical depiction of the rise of a dictator, the destruction he causes and his ultimate defeat. Having mounted revivals of operas by Schreker, Brand and Korngold in the last ten years or so, the Bielefeld company was perhaps uniquely well placed to tackle Ullmann’s magnum opus.
Der Sturz des Antichrist is an ambitious work in all respects – philosophical, dramatic, vocal and technical. It is based on (and remains slavishly faithful to) a dramatic sketch by Albert Steffen, a fellow disciple of the philosopher and teacher Rudolf Steiner. The opera’s Hitler figure is the Regent, who commands technician, priest and poet to submit to his will, symbolic figures representing science, religion and the artist as state propagandist. The poet (Ullmann?) resists and is thrown into prison whereupon his gaoler helps him to unlock his spiritual resources (the scene contains the opera’s most nearly sublime music which CPO quite unnecessarily split between discs). In the final act, the poet denounces the Regent as the Antichrist, and the dictator overreaches himself, inviting destruction as he takes to the skies in a Tippettian aircraft or spaceship.
It is difficult to judge the quality of such an extraordinary piece from a first recording. The recorded balance ensures that the music remains subservient to the words, and such would appear to be the composer’s intention. The work is a metaphysical fantasy squarely in the Wagnerian tradition – which here means few opportunities for dramatic action, scant melodic interest (despite the broadly tonal idiom) and yet plenty of recognizable leitmotives. While there is a hint of Korngold and even Scriabin in the work’s riper moments, Schoenberg and Debussy are more perceptible influences than the Weill or Hindemith one might have expected. So too is Mahler. The main leitmotiv is cribbed from “Ich ging mit Lust” (a Wunderhorn setting from the Lieder und Gesange aus der Jugendzeit), although there might be no significance in this beyond Ullmann’s inability to write his own tunes. Whole-tone and augmented harmonies are identified with the perverted value system of the villainous Regent and the work as a whole is claimed to be tightly structured.
Whatever else it may be, Der Sturz des Antichrist is a sombre affair – the effect of an all-male cast and a brooding orchestral palette featuring contrabassoon, two bass clarinets and even basset horns. The wordless female chorus is used sparingly in the last act. The one outstanding performance is Monte Jaffe’s as the Warden, but then he does have the best music to sing. It is tempting to give this set an uncritical welcome in the light of the composer’s fate. In truth, I suspect that many readers will find it hard going.'