The Silver Lake/The Seraglio review – timely steps with English Touring Opera

Hackney Empire, London
Mozart’s culture clash comedy is impeccably paired with Weill’s parable where poverty and privilege compete under the malign eye of the far right

The programme for English Touring Opera’s autumn season pairs Weill’s The Silver Lake (Der Silbersee) with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the latter performed in English as The Seraglio. They have more in common than you might initially think. Both are Singspiels, combining song with spoken dialogue, and indeed The Silver Lake, with its text by Georg Kaiser, is more a play with music than an opera per se. And both assert the need for an understanding of a common humanity that transcends religious or social divisions as being essential to any kind of progress.

In Weill’s Weimar republic parable, banned after only a handful of performances by the Nazis, the demand is urgently made and pressingly relevant in a depiction of a society lurching almost unawares towards the far right. The policeman Olim shoots and wounds the unemployed, starving Severin when the latter steals a pineapple from a greengrocers. The incident, however, is the prelude to a compassionate friendship between the two men, which is threatened in turn by capitalist cynicism, and the machinations of a once powerful aristocracy, now toadying to the powers that be. The only escape, a prefiguration of exile, lies over the waters of the silver lake itself, which magically freezes every time anyone who wishes to “go further” attempts to cross it.

An angry, poignant piece, it’s unsparingly staged by James Conway and handsomely conducted by James Holmes. The disparities between poverty and privilege are conveyed with tremendous force. The dialogue is in English, the songs in German, and translations of their biting lyrics are displayed on agitprop placards. Riveting central performances from David Webb as Severin and Ronald Samm as Olim draw us almost imperceptibly into the near nightmare of it all. Luci Briginshaw’s Fennimore and James Kryshak’s creepy Lottery Agent are equally outstanding. ETO are working with local choirs throughout the tour: in London, there was impeccable singing from the chorus of Streetwise Opera.

‘Moral and ideological twists and turns’ … English Touring Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Seraglio.
‘Moral and ideological twists and turns’ … English Touring Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Seraglio. Photograph: Jane Hobson

Mozart’s culture clash comedy, meanwhile, is directed by Stephen Medcalf and conducted by John Andrews. Medcalf gives us a period staging set in the early 17th century, so John-Colyn Gyeantey’s Belmonte, the Spaniard abroad, arrives in Ottoman Turkey got up in ruffles, doublet and swirling cape. The revolving set alternates between a gatehouse-cum-office, where Richard Pinkstone’s Pedrillo spars with Matthew Stiff’s Osmin, and the gilded cage of the seraglio itself, where Alex Andreou’s Selim woos Lucy Hall’s Konstanze.

The moral and ideological twists and turns are cleverly teased out. This is very much an opera about strong women braving domineering men, and Hall’s formidable account of Martern Aller Arten results in Andreou falling to his knees before her in supplication, while Nazan Fikret’s glorious Blonde gives Osmin such hell that you almost feel sorry for the old curmudgeon. Towards the end, Andreou’s dignified refusal to emulate European racism suddenly renders Gyeantey’s uppity preening vacuous.

It sounds good, too. Andrews is an exemplary Mozartian, finely judging the grace and passion that are essential to this work. Gyeantey’s rich-sounding tenor nicely offsets Pinkstone’s lighter dexterity and wit. Fikret is exceptional, wonderfully secure over the role’s exacting range, while Hall’s coloratura is exactingly precise and assertive. Stiff’s Osmin, beautifully sonorous, is more dignified and touching than most. It’s a treat from start to finish.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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