For a work that condemns hunger, inequality, class prejudice and rampant capitalism, Kurt Weill’s The Silver Lake (Der Silbersee) is a surprisingly optimistic one, offering a message as relevant today as it was when it was first staged in the last moments of the dying Weimar Republic of 1933. Within weeks, its three simultaneous productions had been closed by the Nazis and the composer and librettist had fled Germany, crossing their own personal silver lakes to artistic freedom.

Ronald Samm (Olim) © Richard Hubert Smith
Ronald Samm (Olim)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Their Singspiel was last seen in London a quarter of a century ago, and has never been seen outside the capital, so English Touring Opera’s new production is throughly welcome, and does not disappoint. Weill’s wonderfully acerbic score, considered his masterpiece, is well served by conductor James Holmes and the players of the ETO orchestra and there are some particularly fine voices among the cast.

Weill and librettist Georg Kaiser spin a fairytale about a band of the dispossessed who, riven with hunger, rob a food store. Their leader Severin takes only a pineapple but is shot and paralysed by Olim, the local policeman. Distraught, Olim resolves to take care of Severin, aided by a lottery win which buys him, in true fairytale style, a castle, complete with an evil, scheming housekeeper (an aristocrat down on her luck). Severin is overcome with anger at his predicament, and Olim, scared, retreats to a tower in the castle. Later, they become reconciled and when the housekeeper tricks Olim into handing over the castle to her and a ghastly aristocratic relative, Olim and Severin head for a new life across the frozen silver lake.

<i>The Silver Lake</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
The Silver Lake
© Richard Hubert Smith

Along the way we hear trenchant condemnation of price-fixing, oversupply in a starving world, the gluttony of the unheeding rich and the immorality of rocketing interest rates, all set to music that rises well above the cabaret style that most associate with Weill. Big-boned themes are underpinned with often lush orchestration and shot through with Weill’s particular brand of menace.

It’s not hard to see that in 1933 the castle represented Germany being retaken by an aristocracy that backed the rise of the Nazis (only later to be spurned), and that the silver lake is the route to a new life for those who turn their backs on confrontation and choose compromise and acceptance. The work’s message is clear: heed not the siren calls of nationalism but seek the common good, a message which needs to be heard in the UK today. It is difficult not to think of our current no-compromise front bench when a greedy aristo sings: “Nobility rules again in the paradise of fools.”

David Webb (Severin) and Ronald Samm (Olim) © Richard Hubert Smith
David Webb (Severin) and Ronald Samm (Olim)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Star of the evening is the Luci Briginshaw, who as Fennimore, the housekeeper’s poor relation, moves stealthily behind the scenes to bring about the necessary reconciliation between Olim and Severin. Her bright, vivacious soprano drew deserved praised from an enthusiastic audience. Tenor David Webb sang convincingly as Severin, with Ronald Samm making a suitably ponderous Olim. Clarissa Meek is imperious as Frau von Luber , the housekeeper, and James Kryshak shines as both the repellent Baron Laur and the lottery agent who brings Olim his sudden fortune. Abigail Kelly and Hollie-Anne Bangham make engaging shop-girls and Bernadette Iglich holds it all together as the feline narrator.

<i>The Silver Lake</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
The Silver Lake
© Richard Hubert Smith

Adam Wilshire’s design of flexible scaffolding (beautifully lit by David W Kidd) can occasionally clutter the stage and obscure some of the principals but generally James Conway’s direction makes everything crystal clear. Special praise for the decision to have the dialogue in English but the sung parts in German: Kaiser’s biting satire works best in the original. However, putting some of the surtitles on placards passed between the cast, while clever at first, becomes over-fussy and tiresomely distracting. But that’s a minor niggle; audiences around England are in for treat.


****1