Pages

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Magic realism, politics and terrific songs: Weill and Kaiser's Winter's Fairy Tale in an imaginative production from English Touring Opera

Weill: The Silverlake -  Ronald Samm, David Webb - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm, David Webb - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Kurt Weill & Georg Kaiser Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake) ; David Webb, Ronald Samm, Clarissa Meek, Luci Briginshaw, James Kryshak, Bernadetta Iglich, dir: James Conway, cond: James Holmes; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Daringly re-thought version of Weill and Kaiser's play with music which makes this a real Winter's Fairy Tale for our modern times

Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm
English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Whilst Kurt Weill's collaboration with Bertolt Brecht gets star billing, that with the German playwright Georg Kaiser tends to be less well known. Yet, Weill and Kaiser would create three major works together, the operas Der Protagonist (1926) and Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (1928) and Der Silbersee: ein Wintermärchen (The Silver Lake: a Winter's Fairy Tale) (1933). This latter is a play with music and would be Weill's last major piece written in Germany. It premiered on 18 February 1933 simultaneously in Leipzig, Erfurt and Magdeburg, just three weeks after the Nazi Party's Machtergreifung on 30 January 1933. Kurt Weill, fled Nazi Germany in March 1933, and fragments of the music from Der Silbersee would find their way into his second symphony, written for the Princesse Edmond de Polignac (Wineretta Singer) in Paris.

Despite having some superb music, and terrific songs, Der Silbersee is rarely performed because the full version lasts around three hours with equal quantities of music and spoken drama, it requires singers who can act, and actors who can sing.


English Touring Opera (ETO) braved the conundrum, and staged Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser's Der Silbersee: ein Wintermärchen (The Silver Lake: a Winter's Fairy Tale) at the Hackney Empire (seen Monday 7 October 2019) as part of their Autumn tour. A modern German singspiel to complement Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail [see my review]. James Conway directed, with designs by Adam Wiltshire, lighting by David W Kidd and choreography by Bernadette Iglich. James Holmes conducted. David Webb was Severin, Ronald Samm was Olim, Clarissa Meek was Frau von Luber, Luci Briginshaw was Fennimore, James Kryshak was the Lottery Agent and Baron von Laur, and Bernadette iglich was the narrator. ETO's ensemble of nine singers (representing shopgirls, gravediggers and youths) was joined by a choir from the London hub of Streetwise Opera. At further performances in other towns and cities, ETO will be collaborating with other local choirs, including the Nottingham and Newcastle hubs of Streetwise Opera.

Weill: The Silver Lake -  David Horton, Jan Capinski, David Webb, Maciek O'Shea, Andrew Tipple  - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  David Horton, Jan Capinski, David Webb, Maciek O'Shea, Andrew Tipple
English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Der Silbersee is a magical work, and by its sheer rarity every performance is an occasion, even though each company needs to make some sort of adaptation to cope with its distinctive performing requirements. Broomhill Opera performed it in 1999 at Wilton's Music Hall, in a translation by Rory Bremner, the first musical theatre event there in the modern era. But my abiding memory is of the performances given at the old Camden Festival in 1987, with a company of actors and singers in a production by, I think, David Pountney with Nigel Robson as Severin. This was perhaps the closest I am every likely to come to seeing the work as its creators intended.

For ETO, James Conway had come up with a relatively compact version of the work, suitable for touring.
The bulk of narrative (in a spoken text translated by Lionel Salter) was carried by the narrator, Bernadette Iglich, a character who moved between adressing the audience directly and participating in the action. Kaiser's plays tend to be in a sequence of tableau-like scenes, with the audience expected to use their imaginations to supply the connective tissue between them, and this does lend itself to a scene-setting narrator. Conway's production took this one step further, and used a variety of alienation techniques which we associate with Brecht, but Kaiser's dramas were never naturalistic nor realistic and I think that we might have been rather surprised by those premiere productions in 1933.

Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm, Bernadette Iglich, Clarissa Meek, David Webb, Luci Briginshaw - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm, Bernadette Iglich, Clarissa Meek, David Webb, Luci Briginshaw
English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
There were a couple of mis-steps, the work was sung largely in German and whilst there were some subtitles, some pieces had translations supplied on-stage with hand held placards and things. This might have seemed a neat idea, and I have no objection to the device per se, but in operation it meant that the translations were tricky to read, you concentrated more on reading than listening. Weill would have hated that. And not everything was sung in German, some choruses were in English. Whilst it would be a shame to lose such phrases as the Lottery Agent's refrain in his tango 'Zins, und Zinse Zins', I think that using English throughout would have been preferrable.

Weill: The Silver Lake -  James Kryshak as the Lottery Agent - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  James Kryshak as the Lottery Agent
English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
There is a lot of music in the piece, not just the songs but in terms of the orchestral contribution. The production solved this by creating a flexible staging which involved steel structures which could be moved around and re-configured, with the necessary props simply stored on the shelving structures at the side of the stage. As choreographer, Bernadette Iglich used the transitions between scenes to create the sense of constant movement, of a society on turmoil. The bulk of the work fell to the highly talented ETO ensemble (Abigail Kelly, Hollie-Anne Bangham, Rosanna Harris, Amanda Wagg, David Horton, Andrew Tipple, Jan Capinski, Bradley Travis, Maciek O'Shea), but the entire cast created a strong ensemble.

David Webb had a tricky task as Severin, the sung portions of the role are taxing and for much of the drama the character is angry. Only in the last act does he realise that by letting go of his anger and desire for revenge can he free himself. Webb succeeded in making us care for Severin, and we could understand why he was angry. This was a brave and generous performance, the sort the role needs, concentrating on the music-drama rather than the sheer beauty of the musical line.

The role of Severin is often taken by an actor and is notionally a baritone, so it was rather daring to cast it with dramatic tenor Ronald Samm [last seen as Walther in Fulham Opera's production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, see my review]. But it paid off. Samm's musical performance was highly text based, as it ought to be, and very vivid, and was complemented by his engaging stage personality. Also, as an actor he knows when to do little or nothing, to be still, and also how to use his highly expressive face and eyes. From the outset, with Olim's long monologue after he has wounded Severin, Samm made us worry about Olim's concerns and his desire to care for Severin.

Weill: The Silver Lake -  David Webb, Ronald Samm - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  David Webb, Ronald Samm
English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
It is important that these two characters have a real sense of deepening and developing relationship, they move from enemity to a sort of friendship to something else. The ending is curiously homo-erotic or homo-social, in a way which was not true of Weill's other work; the two men giving up everything to go off together into the unknown. And in Conway and Wiltshire's simple but imaginative staging, this scene worked partly because of the strong bond which Samm and Webb had created.

Around these two swirled a variety of characters who came in and out of focus. James Kryshak was simply brilliant as the Lottery Agent, but then his tango is probably the hit number of the piece, [believe it or not, it was rather my party-piece in the 1980s when performing with the Pink Singers!] and Kryshak popped up in Act 3 as a nicely vicioius Baron Laur. Clarissa Meek had a wonderful time as Frau von Luber, Severin's housekeeper in his castle once he has won the Lottery; a woman constantly plotting her revenge.

Luci Briginshaw as Fennimore was the closest that the work comes to a heroine. She gets two major solos and a duet with Severin. Briginshaw managed to pull off the trick of singing with great ingenue insouciance, yet giving the music a real edge (in her first solo she sings about being a poor relation, and in her second she 'entertains' Olim and Severin with a song about the murder of Julius Caesar).

In the pit, James Holmes conjured wonderful things with his orchestra of two dozen or so, this was Weill with edge yet with a richness of texture too. The music is complex, and the orchestra does far more than simply supply accompaniments to the songs. From the opening, we were gripped.

I must confess that having read some of the early reviews for this production I was slightly worried about what I would see and hear. But I needn't have been. We were both wonderfully engaged throughout the evening, and taken on a magical and engaging journey which never left its political point behind, but also ensured that there was plenty of stage magic and musical delight along the way. The story has immense relevance to issues in contemporary society, but the strength of this staging was that it didn't hector or lecture, but simply left us to make our own devastating conclusions.

Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
If you have never heard Der Silbersee then go, you need to; and if you have, then you will find plenty to enjoy and re-discover. Performances at Buxton (12/10/2019), Durham (19/10/2019), Bath (22/10/2019), Snape Maltings (26/10/2019), Saffron Walden (1/11/2019), Lancaster University (7/11/2019), Exeter (14 & 15/11/2019).

The great German singing actor Ernst Busch created the role of Severin in Magdeburg in 1933, and in fact recorded two of the songs. Somewhere, I have Busch's recordings on old vinyl discs bought in the DDR in the 1980s, but have yet to find them on CD.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Orpheus goes to Hell: Emma Rice's lively new production somewhat misses the point of Offenbach (★★) - opera review
  • Thought provoking and engaging: Mozart's The Seraglio at English Touring Opera (★★) - opera review
  • Not letting the audience off the hook: I talk to Simon Wallfisch & Edward Rushton about performing Lieder, & about their new album - interview
  • Listening with new ears: Masaaki Suzuki conducts Mendelssohn's Elijah with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (★★½) - concert review
  • Guy Cassier's Ring Cycle production revived at Berlin Staatsoper (★★★) - Opera Review
  • Love and potions on Barry Island: Donizetti's The Elixir of Love at the King's Head Theatre (★★½) - opera review
  • Wayne McGregor's stylish take on Gluck's Orpheus, with Alice Coote in the title role, opens ENO's new season (★★★) - opera review
  • Yuval Sharon’s brand-new production of Die Zauberflöte at Staatsoper Berlin marks the first new production of this opera at this theatre in 25 years - (★★★) opera review
  • Vicious scheming and visual splendour, but seduction too: Opera North's revival of Handel's Giulio Cesare (★★★) - opera review
  • A terrific company achievement: Martinu's The Greek Passion at Opera North (★★★) - opera review
  • From folk-song and jazz to singing at Royal weddings: I meet members of The Queen's Six  - interview
  • With the harp at its centre the opening concert of the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival was a rare treat (★★★½) - concert review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a comment