Imagine early 1930s Germany. In February 1933, three weeks after Hitler came to power, Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee received simultaneous premieres at Leipzig, Erfurt and Magdeburg. Now English Touring Opera is taking The Silver Lake: A Winter’s Tale around the country in a new production that opened at the Hackney Empire in London.
A month after these premieres of Weill’s Singspiel (originally a light opera with spoken dialogue, such as Mozart’s Magic Flute), the composer, whose father was a Jewish cantor, left Germany for good. Within ten years Weill was a US citizen working on Broadway, where he did his own orchestrations and created such hits as Street Scene (produced by the English National Opera some years ago). His most famous work remains Die Dreigroschenoper, his entirely reworked version of John Gay’s Threepenny Opera, written five years before The Silver Lake. The two works have the same format: a play with music, interspersed by songs. In this production spoken dialogue and narration is in English, with songs in the original German, interpreted by sub-titles in a multitude of forms, from a winding scroll at the foot of the stage, to placards and sheets revealed by the performers.
The company’s artistic director James Conway has created a staging that stays true to the milieu in which the composer set his opera, while allowing the audience space for imagination. The castle, and the watery sanctuary where the snow on the ground merges with the frozen edges of the eponymous Silver Lake, are imaginatively represented, and Conway and his designer Adam Wiltshire have done a fantastic job of drawing the audience in to a cold world where wealth and poverty live side by side, where the poor have not enough to eat, and a man can be shot for stealing a pineapple.
This robbery, from a food shop that destroys its unsold merchandise rather than reduce prices, sets the scene for what follows. It is a story of guilt, remorse, anger, resentment, and ultimately redemption. The two main protagonists, the policeman Olim (Ronald Samm), who wins the lottery and buys a castle, and the poor man Severin (David Webb), who can scarcely walk unaided after being shot, accompany one another to the Silver Lake. Simply as a stage play it’s an interesting glimpse of the early 1930s. Other characters include the impoverished aristocrat Frau von Luber (Clarissa Meek), who acts as housekeeper in the castle, her lover Baron Laur (James Kryshak) and her poor relation Fennimore (Luci Briginshaw).
Musically a child of its time, Silbersee’s songs also stand on their own. One of the best is Fennimore’s Ich bin eine arme Verwandte (I am but a poor relation), beautifully sung in Act II when she arrives at the castle. Under the baton of James Holmes, the music acquired a vibrancy complementing the excellent singing and diction from the chorus and principals. This is a compelling staging of a rarely performed work, with admirably stylised choreography by Bernadette Iglich, who also delivered superb clarity as the narrator. I was mesmerised by the performances, the staging and the music.
English Touring Opera’s production continues at Buxton, Durham, Bath, Snape Maltings, Saffron Walden, Lancaster University, Exeter — details here.