Savitri/The Emperor of Atlantis

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Keith Bruce, four stars

VIKTOR Ullman’s The Emperor of Atlantis reportedly progressed as far as the dress rehearsal in Terezin concentration camp, where it was composed, before the Nazis put a stop to it. In Caroline Clegg’s superb production with young singers of the Alexander Gibson Opera School it can be seen how the allegorical drama of a despot’s face off with a personified Death might have hood-winked its real subject matter, but Ullman’s brilliant score was surely the very definition of what the Third Reich would have condemned as “decadent”.

Both the staging and the music refer explicitly to Weimar cabaret and the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, but Ullman also gives his characters big “classical” arias, some lovely Mozartian ensemble work, and the odd lush show-tune as well. With a fine pit band of RCS musicians conducted by Lionel Friend, The Emperor is a glorious feast with every member of the seven-strong cast rising to its musical demands as brilliantly as they do it the characterisation and physical demands of the performance. Beginning in uniform overalls, echoing the Emperor’s name, the cast construct the narrative in four scenes from trestles, frames and the storage of a life in transit in what is a beautifully designed interpretation, alive to details like the echoes of the tempo and tone of military communication in the score.

Gustav Holst’s Savitri, drawn from an episode in the Mahabharata, was composed during the First World War and also features a wrangle with the figure of Death, although the optimistic outcome is clearer. With an elegant simplicity of design, it is beautifully sung by Mark Nathan, Rebecca Godley, and Thomas Kinch, but Holst’s music seems oddly directionless, and – in complete contrast to Ullman’s work, which is rather too replete with contemporary parallels – very much of its time.

Further performances on Friday and Saturday.