Take two one-act operas from different eras, put them together under a title that’s familiar to audiences from an entirely different context, and you have a recipe for dislocation, uncertainty — and a new production at the Wolf Trap Opera.
The title, “The World Turned Upside Down,” is the name of a traditional ballad the British are said to have played when they surrendered to the Americans in 1781, and is familiar to fans of the musical “Hamilton.” The operas are “Merlin’s Island” by Christoph Willibald Gluck, a musical and social reformer who tried to strip away some of the more flowery parts of operatic convention, and “The Emperor of Atlantis,” which Viktor Ullmann wrote in 1943 for an intended performance in the concentration camp Theresienstadt. And director Richard Gammon’s production of both almost succeeds in making a good case for the pairing — on dramatic, if not on musical, grounds.
The two operas seem like strange bedfellows, but both present biting satires of contemporary life. “Merlin’s Island” is a crazy paradise where people behave opposite to the way they do in normal life: Lovers are faithful, lawyers are honest and doctors are principally concerned with healing people. By contrast, Ullmann’s dystopian vision is of a world so rotten that even Death refuses to work there, leaving people unable to die. The happy ending comes when Death finally resumes normal operations, starting with the paranoid and fascist emperor of the title (the baritone Ben Edquist, somewhat challenged by the part).
Both operas lend themselves to a cabaret-style presentation, starting with the campy gesticulations of a green-bearded Merlin (the baritone Conor McDonald) from the top level of Julia Noulin-Mérat’s whimsical two-tiered set. Both involve figures of the commedia dell’arte: Pierrot and Scapin are the protagonists of the Gluck, shipwrecked and looking for girls; in the Ullmann, Harlekin is a pragmatic Everyman. Yet the two pieces still make for an uneven pairing: light wry humor on the one hand and the grim immediacy of impending annihilation on the other.
On Wednesday night, the second performance of the run, the unevenness was exacerbated by what seemed a difference in musical preparation. The Gluck felt under-rehearsed, the singers often surprisingly casual about such details as correct pitches on quick notes. The Ullmann found everyone in better vocal form, especially Daniel Noyola, whose sonorous bass-baritone was muddied in the rapid-fire Gluck but was strong as the “Loudspeaker,” a narrator figure, in the Ullmann. It might have helped to present both works in an English translation, since there was a lot of spoken dialogue in both, in French and German, respectively, that was simply hard to understand and did neither the singers nor the audience any favors.
Whatever the cause, the whole thing was much more effective dramatically than musically, despite the best efforts of conductor Geoffrey McDonald in the diminutive pit. Overall, this crop of singers struck me as needing more work on their technique. Anthony Robin Schneider, for example, was physically and vocally imposing as Death but had a distracting nasal cast to his voice that would be easy to eliminate.
There were certainly highlights. The two femmes fatales of the Gluck, Shannon Jennings and Niru Liu, showed tremendously promising voices (Jennings was featured in “Le Vin Herbé” earlier this season). Megan Esther Grey sang impressively and with notable flexibility, first as a bespectacled medico in the Gluck, then as the sinister surreal Drummer in the Ullmann. And the tenor Joshua Blue, whom I’ve heard as a promising member of the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz program, effectively stole the show as Harlekin in the Ullmann. Blue has a natural sunniness that is welcome in a field rife with earnestness; he made the hard role sound easy and seem fun while giving full credit to its bitter, sardonic bite. With him, I lost the distinction between singing and acting, and got, instead, a performance.
The Wolf Trap Barns are an ideal venue for this kind of thing — small enough to be able to focus on little-known work and, in this case, to preserve the flavor and scale of what a performance at Theresienstadt might have been like. Ullmann’s music, tart and pungent and expressionistic, is well worth hearing. Theresienstadt never got to hear it, however; the authorities deemed it too provocative and ultimately showed that Death was perfectly able to act in the real world by sending many of those involved, including Ullmann, to die in Auschwitz.
The World Turned Upside Down Continues Friday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Wolf Trap Barns. wolftrap.org.