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Wilton's Music Hall
04/01/1999 -  
Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser The silver lake
Damian Whiteley (1st Lad/Doctor), James Cleverton (2nd Lad), Simon Wolfe (3rd Lad), Jason Morell (4th Lad/Baron Laur), Michael Hart-Davis (Severin), Tara Harrison (1st Shopgirl/Nurse), Denise Silvey (2nd Shopgirl/Maid), Mike Burnside (Fat Country Policeman), Danny Sapani (Olim), Daniel Norman (Lottery Agent), Ali McGregor (Fennimore), Rachel Luxon (Frieda), Buffy Davis (Frau von Luber) Charles Hazlewood (conductor), Gordon Anderson (director)

Broomhill Opera's first production in its new London home is notable both for the venue and for the work. Wiltons' Music Hall, first opened in 1858 and last used for performances in 1889, amazingly survives with its barley sugar columns supporting a gold baroque gallery, claret and blue walls and lavish mouldings almost intact. It has been restored with donated materials and labour in less than a month, if not to glory -- the colours date from before electric lighting and look dull today --, then to safety and usability. And the truncated shoebox auditorium is superb, particularly for Weill's cabaret-inspired numbers, carrying the singers' voices and words clearly, if noisily.

Weill and Kaiser's The silver lake (Der Silbersee), elegantly revived by Rory Bremner's translation, also produced in a comparatively short time, is similarly a survival from another age. A combined opera and play with fully integrated music and demanding song-numbers, it requires singer-actors of the kind who trained with Max Rheinhardt. The plot is essentially a Marxist allegory of the situation in Germany when the work was written, at the time of the first Nazi government, but the positive characters are much more human and sympathetic than any of Brecht's. Olim, the policeman who shoots a starving man during a robbery of a food shop, then tries to make amends by keeping him in luxury, represents the confused middle-class social democrats of the Weimar Republic. Severin, the injured man who is obsessed with revenge for past wrongs, represents the bitter working class people. And Frau von Luber, the scheming impoverished aristocrat who defrauds Olim of his castle by building up his fear of Severin, represents the militaristic aristocracy making a comeback, presumably how Weill and Kaiser saw the Nazis.

Both because of the resources it needs and because of its pessimistic, and historically specific, message, The silver lake is rarely performed, and almost never in its complete form as it is in this production. But it includes some breathtaking music. Severin has a tormented revenge aria. He and Fennimore,  the oppressed young woman who becomes a spiritual guide, have a beautiful visionary duet. And there is an intensely moving slow melody while Olim and Severin contemplate death together at the end. There are also some show-stopping songs which have become well-known separately, notably the Lottery Agent's song, on the uses of wealth, Fennimore's song about the miseries of being a poor cousin, and her ballad on the death of Julius Caesar which spurs Severin's desire for revenge. But none of these is a Brechtian alienation number. They are all integral to the plot and characters, contributing moods and often tough ideas.

This production had signs of being work in progress, emblematized by the pile of rubble at the back of the stage. The staging took up a lot of space, not all of it used very much. The stage of the theatre is comparatively shallow -- presumably built with only flat backdrops in mind, which might be a problem in future productions -- and there was a platform in front, extending into the audience, with video screens (old television sets) built into its surface. These displayed only occasional images, of water and fire, very effectively at the end. They didn't seem to add enough to justify taking up the space, but perhaps there wasn't time to try out more possibilites. In other ways, the use of space, with a lower area in the platform for the ditch and cellar, and a box hanging above the stage for the attic, worked well. The sets were rough and ready, mainly old furniture, and the costumes were roughly in period. The shopgirls' dresses looked like the real 1930s thing. The wood at the beginning and the end was projected on to the entire front of the theatre. The snow at the end was done with a ballroom mirrored globe. It looked strange hanging from the high-Victorian oriel in the roof, but had a magical effect.

The performers seemed slightly insecure, particularly in the spoken sections, with occasional muffed lines and one painful mishap when Olim accidentally dropped a trap-door on Frau Luber's head. (Buffy Davis, who has all the marks of an old trooper, responded in character, to applause.) But all of the performances were good, and several were outstanding. Davis, and Tara Harrison as the first shopgirl, gave detailed comic characterizations which could have been middle-aged and young Margaret Thatcher, but both had a lot more. Denise Silvey as the second shopgirl was also inanely funny, completely unable to grasp her friend's unconsciously serious political insights about the stupidity of throwing away food to keep prices up. She sings with a grand belt just right for the music hall setting. Ali McGregor as Fennimore was bruised physically and emotionally, except when she sang and suddenly became theatrical and subversive, delivering the tours de force of her main numbers in style. In an outrageous pink dress, she had a touch of Jane Horrocks in Little Voice, though she has an operatic-quality voice.

Daniel Norman, in a loud check suit and sinister clown makeup, also delivered a tour de force in the Lottery Agent's song, somewhat predictably translated as "It's you, it's really you". The four lads sang lustily, and Mike Burnside did a competent schtick as the fat country policeman. Danny Sapani was an attractive and sympathetic Olim, coming over as a bit of a lightweight, perhaps again a sign of room to grow. He has a good speaking voice and briefly revealed a pleasant singing voice which suggests that he could do music theatre with a bit more training.

Michael Hart-Davis as Severin was the standout performance. It's difficult to judge how big his voice is in this space, but it is a very fine tenor, and his acting is committed and powerful. He was frightening when he started doing threatening things with the knife because he conveyed so much pain as well as anger.

The smallish orchestra was partly hidden in a room to the side of the auditorium, and some of the detail was obviously lost. Charles Hazlewood and the orchestra got the varied idioms, from raucous bar-room band to Brucknerian romantic, spot on, often producing a beautiful warm sound in the lusher sections.

The first-night audience included a fair proportion of sponsors and others who seemed to have little idea what to expect. Many people seemed to be blown away by the music in particular, but also by the force of the drama as a whole. Perhaps it's not so strange. Wilton's is just off Cable Street, not far from the Tower of London which symbolizes traditional military-aristocratic rule. In the 1920s, Winston Churchill became so paranoid about an imagined gang of anarchists in a house in Cable Street that he sent in the army.

H.E. Elsom



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