Arts: Opera: Still waters

DER SILBERSEE WILTON'S MUSIC HALL LONDON
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The Independent Culture
KURT WEILL'S Der Silbersee (The Silverlake, with a libretto by Georg Kaiser) opened in Germany just after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Nine days later the Reichstag went up in flames, and further performances of The Silverlake (and much else besides) were banned. Shortly after, Weill fled Germany, never to return. Can we, or should we, forget the work's originating context? Of course not, but, like any opera, The Silverlake now needs to make its way in our world.

Congratulations, then, to Broomhill Opera for staging it, in full (that's a rarity), in a new translation by Rory Bremner; and for doing so at Wilton's, a Victorian music hall, the survival of which is almost as miraculous as anything that happens in The Silverlake. Broomhill plans to make Wilton's a fully functioning venue for both Tower Hamlets and the wider community, and while it still needs plenty of work, its present distressed grandeur is wholly appropriate for the decaying world we see in The Silverlake.

Weill and Kaiser subtitled the opera "a winter's fairy tale" and its fantastic elements, suffused with a beseeching optimism, set it apart from the works that Weill wrote with Bertolt Brecht. Weill's music achieves an expansive lyricism that prefigures what he wrote after settling in America in 1935, but it remains a piece from the composer's German period, the greatest according to some, more profound than The Threepenny Opera, more humane than Mahagonny. Gordon Anderson's production here is perhaps too tentative to confirm its greatness, but it's an honourable attempt.

The work itself mixes speech, song and melodrama in a way that demands singing actors and acting singers, and if Anderson's young cast is sometimes outfaced by both dramatic and musical demands, nobody is anything less than wholehearted.

The translation isn't overly Bremnerised; the dialogue (too often shouted rather than spoken) is rather ponderous, but a sprinkling of topicalisms doenough to bridge then and now.

The lottery as deus ex machina reminds us that our world isn't that far removed from that of The Silverlake, and Thomas Hadley's designs cleverly incorporate flickering TV screens to represent the silver lake across which, as in the biblical exodus, our two indigent "heroes" escape. But relevance alone isn't enough, and what this production shows is just how powerful Weill's music remains, from the searing abrasions of Fennimore's "Ballad of Caesar's Death", affectingly sung by Al McGregor, to the vengeance aria of the imprisoned Severin (Michael Hart-Davis. whose lyrical tenor was a mite taxed).

What works best, though, is the 28-piece orchestra, positioned under the balcony for maximum aural impact and conducted with electrifying theatricality by Charles Hazlewood. Here no allowance is needed: this is modern drama, breathing fire in a world where too much is lukewarm.

Further performances at Wilton's, Grace's Alley, London E1 (0171-702 9555) to April 18

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