Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee in Pforzheim

Der Silbersee, written by Georg Kaiser with music by Kurt Weill, is a fascinating work with a fascinating history. A sharp leftist, expressionist piece but with a poetic, optimistic ending, it was premiered simultaneously in Berlin, Erfurt and Magdeburg in January 1933, three weeks after the Nazis seized power. Unsurprisingly, given its content and the fact that Weill was Jewish, it was banned after only 16 performances. Although other works by the author and composer achieved considerable popularity after the Second World War, it has been slow to emerge from neglect. A pity, because although an odd mixture of melodrama, brutal satire, sentimentality and cabaret, it is powerful and engaging. And Weill’s score is typically melodious, with languorous dance tunes, blustering marches and crunching harmonies, perfectly reflecting the atmosphere of Weimar Germany.

The story begins with some unemployed men who are so hungry that they resort to stealing food. One of them (Severin) is shot and wounded by a policeman (Olim). The latter subsequently regrets his action and seeks out Severin to care for him. The two are eventually reconciled and, abandoning the sordid wealth-grabbing world, they idealistically seek a new future by symbolically crossing a frozen lake, the Silbersee.

Thomas Münstermann’s bold, imaginative production at Pforzheim went a long way to justifying resurrection of the piece. Expressionist in approach, with much stylisation of movement, it was well focussed on the drama and visually striking. Perhaps, with a large chorus and many extras, he tried to fit too much into the presentation for there was some untidiness and clumsy action.  In the pit, Florian Erdl supplied an energetic and highly idiomatic contribution to the evening. Some of the minor roles were undercast, but the principals all performed creditably. Stamatia Gerothanasi made much of the “Ballad of Caesar’s Death”, in the style of Lotte Lenya. As Severin, Philipp Weiner was less comfortable with Weill’s vocal lines, but cut a convincing figure as the bitter, wounded protagonist. The Olim of Tomas Möwes nevertheless outshone all other performances on stage. His haunted presence, as he endeavoured to salvage his life from guilt, was profoundly moving.

Engagement with, and the involvement of, the audience is essential for a provocative work of this kind and sadly it generated only a muted response from the small numbers at the Theater Pforzheim. Let us hope that Der Silbersee will be revived by some of the larger opera companies.