Review: The Silver Lake @ Exeter Northcott

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Moving, theatrical and passionate. A treat from start to finish!

The English Touring Opera treated us to Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee, The Silver Lake. The songspiel (play with music) is mostly known for being banned by the Nazis as soon as it was created. In the current political climate, ETO argues, it is imperative that art makes a political comment and the narrative seems to ring true today.

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Georg Kaiser’s story concerns Severin (David Webb), a poor man who steals a pineapple from a bakery and who is shot by Olim (Ronald Saam), a morally conflicted policeman who wants to help Severin but cannot due to his financial state. A lottery win enables Olim to buy a castle and give Severin the nurturing he needs to recover. However, Olim doesn’t tell Severin that it was he who shot him, and is forced to see his anger and frustration grow. The castle is run by an impoverished aristocrat, Frau Luber (the brilliant Clarissa Meek), who has alternative motives, and a beautiful and poor relative Fennimore (Luci Briginshaw). Fennimore and Severin fall in love and talk of the Silver Lake, an ideal place where they could find happiness. It is a story of morals, poverty, perseverance and love. It satirises the politics of the time and the class power relations. The play opens with the poor citizens, ceremoniously burying hunger as a last resort attempt to get rid of it. You can see why the Nazis weren’t too keen on the story.

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Weill was a frequent collaborator of Bertolt Brecht, a seminal theatre practitioner whose techniques were embraced by the director, James Conway. These include the use of the chorus to represent the policeman Olim’s conscious multi-roling and a representative rather than realistic set, designed by Adam Wiltshire. I enjoyed the grey and metal scaffolding on stage, especially the metal mesh box on wheels which acted as a coffin, a bed and everything in between. The music was sung mostly in German with a few numbers in English, which made me wonder why ETO didn’t do it all in one or the other. To present the subtitles the company cleverly designed a variety of props and staging devices which Brecht himself would be proud of. These ranged from roll-up banners, which were manually operated on stage, to large cards and placards. James Holmes conducts a technically impeccable orchestra which contributes to this strong overall production.

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Unfortunately, as is often the case with plays with music, operas and operettas, the acting was not on the same level as the often stellar singing. Bernadette Iglich’s Narrator was weak and feeble, rarely able to capture the audience’s attention and fully inhabit the character which is supposed to guide us through the plot. The choice was made not to cut any of the music (some of the sections could have been removed, in my opinion), but to instead strip the scenes and dialogue to reduce the running time to just over 2 hours including an interval, so a strong narrator was much needed. Saam’s Olim was sung with admirable bravado, but his acting was often not appropriate to the scene. Kryshak, as the sensual Lottery Agent, attempted sass which fell flat, though his Barun Laur made up for it, and both roles were sung beautifully.

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Exeter was the last venue the autumn tour visited, but they will be back in spring next year, performing Handel’s Giulio Cesare and a classic by Mozart, Cosi Fan Tutte. I urge you to pencil the dates 27 – 30 May 2020 in your calendars. They offer a number of £5 tickets for under 35s, and with a reasonable running time, keen interest in creative adaptation and glorious singing, the shows are a treat for both life-long fans of opera and newcomers to this genre.

Josip Marinčić

Photo Credits: Richard Hubert Smith

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