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June 18, 2007

Brendan Simms finds that Kurt Weill's political propaganda does not work when it is done for laughs - even if it is translated by Rory Bremner: Kurt Weill's Der Silbersee at the Wexford Festival Opera

Posted by Brendan Simms

Kurt Weill's Silver Lake (Der Silbersee)
Johnstown Castle, County Wexford
Wexford Festival Opera
Orchestra of the Wexford Festival Opera
translated by Rory Bremner
conducted by Timothy Redmond
directed by Keith Warner
in repertory 31st May - 15th June 2007

Kurt Weill was no orthodox communist; an obstinate humanity prevented him. He famously said: I cannot set the Communist Manifesto to music. In Der Silbersee, Weill set the bible - or at least Georg Kaiser's play - to music instead. It is a story of the victory of redemption and forgiveness over vengeance. The policeman, Olim, shoots the starving Severin for the act of stealing a pineapple to satisfy his hunger.

Stricken by remorse, Olim - who has improbably come into a great fortune in the meantime - invites Severin to his newly-acquired castle, where he tries to nurse him back to health. At first, Severin resists any attempts to make him forget his pain and swears vengeance against the policeman who has crippled him. Only towards the end is the victim able to forgive Olim, whose identity is finally revealed. By then, however, the aristocrats, led by Olim's former housekeeper Frau von Luber, have retaken control of the castle and expelled the two proletarian interlopers who attempt suicide by jumping into the nearby Silver Lake which gives the piece its name.

Admittedly, the reconciliation effected between Olim and Severin was very much in the service of the class struggle. By bringing together the penitent policeman and the thief, Weill was stressing the importance of healing the vicious split between Social Democrat and Communist in the face of the rising Nazi tide.

Silbersee was thus very much a call to arms, when it was first performed simultaneously in Leipzig, Magdeburg and Erfurt - three red heartlands - in mid February 1933. Hitler had become Chancellor a few weeks earlier, but his hold on power was still far from complete. It was a moment when the future of Germany - and indeed Europe - was still open. To Weill and many on the left there still was everything to play for. It was only a month later, after the Enabling Act that Weill finally fled abroad.

Weill's was a disconcerting not to say incongruous message in the splendid surroundings of Johnstown Castle, whence the Wexford Opera Festival had migrated while its traditional base is being renovated and expanded. Admittedly, the castle and the magnificent lake setting echoed the castle and the lake in the piece, but there the similarity ends.

The effect on arrival was that of a rather posh Scotch wedding, strengthened by the strains of a bagpiper on the roof. Purists objected to this on the grounds that in Co. Wexford the traditional Irish uileann pipes would have been more appropriate. On closer inspection, admittedly, the piper turned out to be attired not in reassuring tartan, but in the kind of tricolours favoured by the robuster sort of American St. Patrick's Day Parade. To cap it all, a voluble peacock not only patrolled the battlements in bright plumage but squawked audibly throughout the performance.

The audience was made up of the usual Wexford blend of locals, Anglo-Irish grandees and the tiger cubs of Ireland's booming economy. After consuming a picnic on the terrace overlooking the lake, they moved into a vast tent, the entrance hall of which had been imaginatively constructed around a garden fountain. It all contrasted very much with the cosy intimacy of the old Theatre Royal with which the festival has been associated for so long. How, one wondered, would they keep them down at the farm now that they had seen gay Paree?

The organisers took the brave decision of choosing Silbersee for the premiere, rather than Dvorak's Rusalka, Stravinsky's Pulcinella or Busoni's Arlecchino, which are also being performed this year. If the gamble did not quite come off, it was not the fault of the salty and idiomatic translation by the British comedian Rory Bremner, better known to television audiences for his impersonations of the Prime Minister. His topical reference to SSIAs raised the biggest laugh of the evening. Nor could one necessarily fault the rather eclectic costumes. The original performance in 1933 had clad Severin's unfortunate gang in unmistakably proletarian garb, whereas this time more Dickensian rags were favoured. Olim, on the other hand, was dressed as an American policeman. The intent, perhaps, was to shatter any sense of unity of time and space.

Part of the problem was technical. The tent was comfortable and the scaffolding admirably sturdy, but the acoustics were bad. The props were so awkwardly arranged, that much of the audience could not see all of the action in the dramatic final scene. In this respect, Silbersee suffered from comparison with classic Wexford performances such as Susa's Transformations last year. Another difficulty lay with the direction of Keith Warner.

In a lengthy interview with the Irish Times before the festival, he had stressed that a director should "love" music. It must therefore have been a particular penance to him to have to begin with an opera with so little of it: scarcely one hour of music, with two of dialogue, often rebarbative.

Against this background, the decision to play for laughs was understandable but unfortunate. Weill's corrosive satire quickly became pantomime and even slapstick. This is particularly jarring in the scene where Olim is ejected from his castle by an aristocratic coup, which Weill surely intended to be a moment of great bitterness. After all, it was an allusion to the way in which the left had lost the fortress of Weimar democracy and thus the revolution of 1918. Instead, the direction turned the exchange between the scheming nobles into a comic exchange. Here the faux-German accents of Frau von Luber - the former East-enders star Anita Dobson - and Baron von Laur were entertaining enough in their own way, yet too much imitations of stock Nazi film characters.

The only performance which really impressed was that of Frau von Luber's impoverished but big-hearted niece, the improbably-named Fennimore, played by Nina Bernsteiner. Her rendition of

If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword
was particularly impressive and caught the echoes of the Communist "Internationale" perfectly.

In any case, none of this was enough to hold all of the audience for Act Two; it had thinned noticeably after the interval. One formidable Dowager was heard to groan when told that there was still an hour and forty minutes to go. Those who stayed the course might have been spiritually nourished, but they were surely physically as famished as Weill's starved proletarians.

Silbersee was also grappling with a deeper problem at Wexford which goes to the heart of Kaiser and Weill's project. Leaving aside the music itself, most great operas are borne along by eternal themes - friendship, betrayal, redemption, and love - usually love. Silbersee has plenty of betrayal and redemption, of course, but there is precious little love, apart from a few tender moments between Fennimore and Severin. It is first and foremost a piece of political propaganda rather than transcendant art.

Moreover, and this is a criticism of the piece itself rather than the production, one might argue that Weill had chosen the wrong target. The real enemy in 1933 were not the cardboard aristocrats of Silbersee, but Hitler's rather more formidable Nazis, who are ignored throughout. In that sense, too, Weill's Silbersee, remains trapped in the early twentieth century, and struggles to appeal to a wider audience.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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