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Work of the week – Viktor Ullmann: The Broken Jug

On 13 April a new chamber edition of Viktor Ullman’s opera The Broken Jug (Der zerbrochene Krug) will premiere at the Cuvilliés-Theater in Munich, performed by the Munich Chamber Orchestra and conductor Karsten Januschke, with staging by Andreas Weirich.

Ullmann composed The Broken Jug, his setting of Heinrich von Kleist’s popular dramatic comedy, in 1942 between his two operas The Fall of Antichrist (1936) and The Emperor of Atlantis (1943). The score was completed only a few weeks prior to Ullmann’s deportation to the concentration camp Theresienstadt, and was considered lost until its rediscovery in the University of Prague music archive by conductor Israel Yinon. In 1996, Yinon conducted the operas first staging at the Dresden Music Festival over 54 years after it was first composed. In 2017 Richard Whilds, repetiteur at the Bavarian State Opera, created a new arrangement with reduced orchestra for the production at Munich’s Cuvilliés Theater. This new chamber version now brings the piece to smaller stages.

The Broken Jug: A hidden indictment of the Nazi Regime

At first glance, Ullmann’s libretto largely adheres to Kleist’s text and thus appears to engage the work of a poet celebrated by the Nazi Party without critique. However, closer study reveals Ullmann’s highly effective abridgements of the comedy’s text, and its hidden function as socio-political commentary. The one-act opera addresses morality and guilt by concisely telling the story of the village judge Adam who has to pass judgement on his own misdeed – the broken pitcher of Marthe – and is ultimately unmasked as the true culprit. The final verse in particular, written by Ullmann himself, is set in the context of the Nazi’s Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court) and is a clear indictment of the iniquities of the justice system under the Third Reich:

“Fiat Justitia: then as now, no-one should be a judge, if his heart is not pure”
– Ullmann in The Broken Jug  

The Munich staging will pair the chamber version of The Broken Jug with Ernst Kreneks tragic opera Der Diktator, with four more performances on 15, 25, 27 and 29 April. In the next edition of the Schott Journal (May – August 2018) we will explore further Chamber opera works.