Every summer, Wolf Trap Opera plays a vital role in expanding operatic exposure by programming a new or rarely performed work. This year included not one, but two rare works in a brilliant double bill titled “The World Turned Upside Down” masterfully directed by Richard Gammon which featured Gluck’s “Merlin’s Island” and Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis,” two vastly different soundscapes tied together by their shared setting of a world where not all is at it seems.
In Gluck’s “Merlin’s Island” or “L’ile de Merlin,” two Parisian actors find themselves washed up ashore a magical island, where everything is topsy turvy: the women don’t cheat, the lawyers pay for court fees, and modern medicine is akin to sexual healing. Bass-baritone, Daniel Noyola and baritone, Ben Edquist were outrageously funny in their characterizations of outsiders Scarpin and Pierrot whose M.O. was to land the two lovely ladies, Argentine (soprano, Shannon Jennings) and Diamantine (mezzo-soprano, Niru Liu) whose search for love conveniently only allowed them to marry men of lower stature and wealth.
This year included not one, but two rare works in a brilliant double bill titled ‘The World Turned Upside Down’…
However, this marital match was only made possible by the island’s magician and namesake, Merlin himself, brilliantly played by baritone, Conor McDonald. McDonald had the audience rolling with laughter as he guided the two newcomers through the intricacies of his island using ridiculous, over-the-top personas.
Based on the French vaudeville comedy “Le Monde Renverse,” Gluck’s score bursts with comedic flair and takes every opportunity to accentuate the sharp-witted text. As was the style for early classical opera comique, his arias are no longer than what is necessary to advance the plot and are often broken up by spoken dialogue. Julia Noulin-Merat’s set also embodied the opera comique style and shimmered boldly from floor to ceiling in tropical hues. In stark contrast to Gluck’s playful orchestration, Ullmann’s opera, “The Emperor of Atlantis,” takes a much darker turn. Composed during his time in a Nazi internment camp, “The Emperor of Atlantis” or “Death’s Refusal” also takes place in an upside down world, but this one mirroring the hellish reality of Europe during World War II. The music is harsh, dissonant, and full of tension and the shiny glamor of the Merlin’s Island set is transformed by dark lighting to a chilling scene with imminent evil in the air.
In Ullmann’s world, Death (bass, Anthony Robin Schneider) feels challenged by the Emperor Overall (Baritone, Ben Edquist), who has launched a war to end all wars and in so doing has taken power over life and death into his own hands. In response to this lack of respect, Death breaks his sword, disabling anyone from dying. This refusal generates wide-spread panic and societal collapse as the people are forced to navigate the balance between life and death. Only when Emperor Overall concedes his power and succumbs to Death is order restored. The intensity of Edquist’s manic breakdown as Emperor Overall was bone-chilling and served as the dramatic climax of the night, inspiring mixed emotions of pity and hate. Other shoutouts for brilliant interpretation and singing in this challenging work include soprano, Megan Esther Grey as the drummer and tenor, Joshua Blue as the Harlekin.
Running Time: Approximately 2 and a half hours including an intermission.
While unfortunately the World Turned Upside Down run is over, do not miss Wolf Trap Opera’s main stage productions later this summer which include “Ariadne auf Naxos” July 19th-27th and “The Barber of Seville” on August 9th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Both operas were performed in the original French and German.