Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Silver Lake @ Hackney Empire, London

5, 7 October 2019

The Silver Lake

(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The Silver Lake is not the best known of Weill’s compositions, while the librettist for the singspiel, Georg Kaiser, is today less famous than Brecht, with whom Weill collaborated on The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Kaiser, however, was the most frequently performed playwright of the Weimar Republic, and when listening to the piece, it is hard not to rank it as standing among the composer’s greatest achievements.  

Der Silbersee: ein Wintermärchen premiered simultaneously in Erfurt, Leipzig and Magdeburg (as was quite normal at the time) on 18 February 1933, just three weeks after the Nazi Party’s Machtergreifung on 30 January. It was both Weill and Kaiser’s last production in the Weimar Republic before they were forced to emigrate, and was banned by the Nazis on 4 March, having by then been performed sixteen times. It received some attention after the Second World War, and seems to have become more noticed over recent years but, given the overall quality of its music and concept, it still deserves to be better known.

The story sees several impoverished youths rob a grocery, only for one of them, Severin, to be shot by the policeman, Olim. Olim then becomes intrigued to discover that Severin was making off with nothing other than a single pineapple, and feels guilty at having wounded him. After lamenting that he wishes he could do more to help the injured Severin, he suddenly discovers he has won the jackpot on the lottery and therefore is in a position to do so.

The question, however, is will he? It is posed to him in an aria by the Lottery Agent, but the answer turns out to be ‘yes’ as Olim destroys his police report of the incident, resigns his own position, and buys a large castle in which he looks after Severin handsomely as he recuperates. However, Severin proclaims his desire to take revenge on the person who shot him, which frightens Olim. He in turn confides to his housekeeper Frau Von Luber that it was he, and the woman turns the knowledge to her advantage by getting Olim to give her the keys and even sign over possession of the castle to her.

Her niece Fennimore, however, is dismissed from service after singing an inappropriately bloody ballad about Julius Caesar’s assassination at dinner, and as she departs Severin persuades her to find his friends who live by the silver lake. With Olim hiding (and then locked) in the castle tower, and Severin chained in the basement, having become enraged after his friends arrived and told him it was Olim who shot him, things look desperate, but then Severin discovers that his chains fall away when his desire for revenge subsides.

The Silver Lake

Ronald Samm
(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Severin and Olim forgive each other, but they both have nothing now as Olim signed everything over to Frau Von Luber, and her friend Baron Laur threatens to expose him for destroying a police statement if he tries to do anything. As a result, Severin and Olim depart for the silver lake, with the ending proving very moving as they expect to wade in and drown, but discover as they cross it that the frozen ice will take their weight.

Needless to say, the singspiel is not a predominantly plot driven affair, but rather an exploration into the human predicament. As is explained when Olim attempts to write his police report, the silver lake is a place where anarchists and criminals go. There is an implication that it is a place of death, with Severin and Olim departing for it because there is nowhere else for them to go, and yet it is pointed out that it will take the weight of anyone who still has a purpose and thus a reason to live. It is equally important that they go together as it reveals how the journey of life is made worthwhile by the fellowship experienced along the way.

The piece is also made remarkable by its political, economic and social commentary, so that when some shop girls wonder why they have to throw out yesterday’s unsold food when people are hungry, it leads to a song on commodity prices! After Olim has a big win, he is lectured on investing it wisely by the Lottery Agent in an aria about compound interest, which also possesses an underlying question of whether, now that he is rich, he is going to do all of the benevolent things that he always said he would. 

The original piece lasts for over three hours, comprising roughly equal amounts of dialogue and music. James Conway’s production for English Touring Opera, however, utilises a concert version (although it is fully staged) which replaces the dialogue with a far shorter narration. This is delivered in English, as are a few of the choruses, but the vast majority of the music is sung in German. However, to maintain a sense of engagement with the words from the audience, very few of the translations appear as surtitles on side screens, but rather become an integral part of the drama. Performers hold them aloft on a series of boards and placards, or, for some arias, wind a continuous piece of ‘tape’ that displays the words between two spools.

This effective device caps what is quite a ‘Brechtian’ staging all round, with Adam Wiltshire’s set consisting of scaffolding that is pushed into various positions over the course of the evening. Props appear on the shelves that it contains, while metal staircases create passages to a higher level. When Severin smashes through a glass door, he puts his hand through an empty frame while a chorus member makes the appropriate sound. Whenever the silver lake is mentioned a silver-grey screen descends to depict it, including when Fennimore sings the ballad about Julius Caesar because it links with, among other things, his death and Brutus becoming an ‘outcast’.

The orchestra is conducted extremely well by James Holmes, while the cast proves highly engaging, with David Webb’s Severin, Ronald Samms’ Olim, Clarissa Meek’s Frau Von Luber, Bernadette Iglich’s Narrator, and James Kryshak’s Lottery Agent and Baron Laur all standing out. Arguably the most intriguing performance of all, however, comes from Luci Briginshaw as Fennimore whose soprano has a brilliant metallic quality. Different choirs are participating for various performances on the tour, but Streetwise Opera, which has the honours for the outings in London, Durham and Buxton, plays its part to the full in contributing to a deeply impressive performance of a shockingly underrated work.

English Touring Opera will tour its three current productions, The Silver Lake, The Seraglio and Laika the Spacedog, around the country until 19 November 2019. For full details of venues and dates visit the English Touring Opera website.

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The Silver Lake @ Hackney Empire, London