Heading to the Silver Lake: Der Silbersee at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

Weill – Der Silbersee

Severin – Daniel Arnaldos
Olim – Benny Claessens
2 Burschen – Simon Schmidt, Onno Pels, Thierry Vallier, Mark Gough
2 Verk
äuferinnen – Dagmara Dobrowolska, Wu Chia-Fen
Lotterieagent – James Kryshak
Fennimore – Marjan De Schutter, Hanne Roos
Frau von Luber – Elsie De Brauw
Baron Laur – James Kryshak
Jäger / Doktor  / Polizist – Jonas Grundner-Culemann

Koor Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Ballet Vlaanderen / Karel Deseure.
Stage director – Ersan Mondtag.

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Ghent, Flanders, Belgium.  Saturday, September 18th, 2021.

This new production of Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser’s Der Silbersee marked the latest collaboration of Ersan Mondtag with Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, following his operatic debut in Der Schmied von Gent at the start of 2020.  Der Silbersee is an interesting work, more singspiel than opera, but also one with a deep social conscience.  Premiered days after Hitler took power in 1933, the narrative relates to the story of a police officer, Olim, who tries to make amends to a man he shot, Severin, while the latter was stealing a pineapple, by caring for him at the castle Olim won in a lottery.  There, Olim has to contend with Frau von Luber, the housekeeper and previous owner of the castle, who wants her property back, and Fennimore her daughter. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen engaged a cast of singers, alongside noted Flemish and Netherlandic actors.  The dialogue was given in a combination of the original German, together with English, and additionally in Standard Belgian Dutch and Standard Netherlands Dutch – with the cast also offering a number of passages of improvisation.  Mondtag transfers the action to 2033, yet other than futuristic costumes (Josa Marx) and the inhabitants of the Silbersee seemingly disfigured by some previous traumatic event (named in the program book as ‘mutants’), the social context of the updating seemed lacking.  A glance at the program book after the performance, revealed that a scene in which the cast read a review of the staging, was actually meant to be kind of moral outrage on behalf of a totalitarian regime – but this was an idea that felt barely exposed, let alone explored. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

What we got instead, was a relatively straightforward retelling of the story, reduced of its political and social implications.  Olim was obsessed with Severin, not only in his caring for him, but also romantically.  This led to a touching dénouement as they contemplated the Silbersee together.  The sets, also by Mondtag, were highly impressive and imposing – with two rooms in the castle, one full of statues, the other an impressive wooden gallery, complete with quite stunning stained glass windows. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

While the visuals were impressive, where the evening proved problematic was in the pacing.  Far too often, the show was held up for Benny Claessens’ Olim to indulge in active stage action, or Elsie De Brauw’s Frau von Luber to perambulate imperiously around the stage.  Holding up the action in Act 3 for Frau von Luber to recount what she had done in the previous scene felt like an indulgence that quickly outstayed its welcome.  What was amusing initially, like Claessens’ flirting with some extras by spreading himself over the table, quickly became stale over the course of the 3 hour and 20 minute running time. 

Karel Deseure did his best to keep the evening moving along, kicking off with a vital account of the overture.  He was alive to that unique Weillian combination of acerbic brassiness and wistful nostalgia.  The Opera Ballet Vlaanderen orchestra was on superb form, the brass shaping their melodies artfully, although the strings were caught slightly off guard by Deseure’s brisk tempo initially – surely something that will settle down over the course of the run.  Jan Schweiger’s chorus, off stage throughout, sang with warm and luminous tone, although the sopranos were slightly approximate of pitching at first.  They also sang with remarkably tight ensemble and some impressively unanimous final consonants. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Daniel Arnaldos sang Severin in a focused lyric tenor, putting the text front and centre where it belongs.  He also dispatched his dialogue in highly idiomatic English and impeccable German.  Perhaps Arnaldos lacks the last degree of heft for Severin’s more declamatory music, but he always used his instrument intelligently and his stage presence and charisma were undeniable.  Hanne Roos sang Fennimore’s music in a bright soprano, a little shallow of tone at first, but she soared with pulchritudinous ease over the chorus in the final scene.  Fennimore was also incarnated by Marjan De Schutter, who gave almost all of her dialogue, while Roos sang the music.  De Schutter was a game stage presence, holding the scene with ease – and even gave us a musical number, sung in a raspy contralto, during a scene change.  She brought so much emotion and insight to the text – I would love to hear De Schutter do an evening of cabaret songs.  Benny Claessens was certainly energetic as Olim, switching between all three languages with idiomatic ease.  He was definitely uninhibited and threw himself fully into his assignment.  Elsewhere, Elsie De Brauw was both domineering and sardonic as Frau von Luber.  While James Kryshak sang his music in a forwardly placed, handsome tenor.  The remaining smaller roles once again confirmed the excellence of casting available to the house. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Thanks are most certainly due to Opera Ballet Vlaanderen for giving us the opportunity to see this rarity.  The music and narrative are undoubtedly worthy of rediscovery.  Mondtag has given us a real show – one that looks fabulous and gives us a highly entertaining camp extravaganza that provides laughs.  At the same time, it did feel too leisurely paced and dragged just at the point at which it should have crackled with energy.  Similarly, the social context and political implications of the work, particularly in the dark times we live now, felt underexplored.  That said, musically it was immensely satisfying, and it was tremendously entertaining for the most part.  Hopefully the pacing will settle down during the run.  It did, yet again, confirm that this is a house willing to take risks and give its audiences something outside of the norm – and for that we should be thankful.

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