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CD Review

Kurt Weill

Silverlake - A Winter's Tale

  • Der Silbersee - Ein Wintermärchen
Soloists, Pro Musica Köln, Cologne Radio Orchestra/Jan Latham-König
Capriccio 60011-2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Zing!

At long last, the extent of Kurt Weill's achievement seems close to general rediscovery. Although major works like Die Burgschaft and Weg der Verheissung remain unrecorded, one suspects this state of affairs won't last long. A smaller, but no less important non-theater legacy also awaits, including the first string quartet, a cello sonata, Frauentanz, and the Quodlibet. Recordings of all these works have been made but currently lurk somewhere in the land of unavailability, at least in the United States.

Der Silbersee should not be confused with the New York City Opera's Silverlake, at one time released on Nonesuch. Georg Kaiser's original libretto was junked in favor of a lump of piecework by one Hugh Wheeler (responsible for the book of at least one Sondheim musical). Kaiser was a poet and great dramatist. Wheeler is neither. In addition, New York City Opera tampered with the score, according to David Drew (thanks to John Baxindine for pointing me to the reference). Lys Symonette, at one time Weill's assistant, added incidental music from Weill's Gustav III and the "Muschel-Song" from Konjunktur, mostly to satisfy the company's desire for a production with continuous music. Drew judged the result "well-nigh indefensible." As far as I know, this new CD gives us the first recording of a major twentieth-century opera, presented more or less as its creators wrote it. Of course, directors and producers tamper with theater works all the time in the name of economy and, sometimes, Higher Truth. I can't think of a recent production of Verdi, for example, that puts aside the "performing tradition" in favor of the composer's manuscript. Of course, Verdi has a robust performing tradition, and Weill does not. It was unfortunate that the first major recording should have preserved a simulacrum, for it's probably one of Weill's most powerful non-Brecht theater scores.

It's taken at least fifteen years to correct this initial mistake. Not surprisingly, the new CD comes from the enterprising German label Capriccio, apparently undertaking a major Weill retrospective. Releases so far have included, among others, Der Lindberghflug, Der Kuhhandel (excerpts), Der Jasager, and Down in the Valley. The production seems to have cut some of Kaiser's dialogue, but the Weill score remains, I believe, intact.

Kaiser subtitled his work "a winter's tale." "Märchen," however, also means "fairy-tale," so we might expect some fantasy in a land that never was. Indeed, as you will see, the plot has several fairy-tale elements to it. However, Weill usually went in for fairy tales in reverse. Instead of fairy princesses and Cinderellas, for example, his dramatic heroines are often prostitutes (or at least tough babes) – see Dreigroschenoper and Mahagonny. Although the element of parable is strong in Weill's stage works, what we normally think of as fantasy rarely puts in an appearance. The circumstances of most of Weill's theater works are grim indeed. The liner notes point to a literary pun. Heinrich Heine wrote a long, bitter poem called Deutschland: ein Wintermärchen, and so the subtitle tips off the educated German to see land of the fairy tale as, in reality, Germany – specifically the Germany of 1932-33, when Hitler came into power. Silbersee's initial run was cut short by the Nazis' ban on any further performance of Weill's work and thus represents the last piece Weill wrote in Germany. The subtitle also alludes to Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, in which the nasty and the redemptive fantastic also collide. The use of the name "Silverlake" probably comes from the enormously popular Karl May – the German Zane Grey – and his Western novel, The Treasure in the Silverlake. At any rate, the fairy tale turns out to concern hatred, revenge, and forgiveness.

Kaiser fills his "winter's tale" with the kind of ethical dilemma that attracted Weill throughout his career. A poor man named Severin steals a pineapple. In the course of his getaway, a policeman shoots him and cripples him. The disparity between the absurdity of the crime and the severity of the punishment leads to guilt which overcomes the policeman, Olim, who by great good luck wins a lottery and becomes a rich man. He buys a castle and there cares for Severin, who has no idea that his benefactor is the man who crippled him. Indeed, Severin continually plans vengeance on the unknown policeman, and his hatred makes him crazy. He treats Olim with contemptuous indifference. To soothe him, Olim hires the poor-relation niece of his evil housekeeper, Frau von Luber, to distract Severin from his obsessions. The girl, Fennimore, is pretty and plays music. Von Luber, resentful that she (an aristocrat without money) should be working for a prol with money and puzzled by Olim's kindness to a man who ignores him, charges Fennimore with finding out Olim's secret so that the housekeeper might gain control of the man's wealth. At dinner, Fennimore sings a song on Caesar's death – the death of a tyrant – which dashes Olim's hopes of forgiveness and fuels Severin's drive for revenge. In despair, Olim tells his housekeeper his secret and hands over all his keys. The housekeeper has become the highest authority in the castle. Severin learns from his partners in crime that Olim was the man who crippled him and tries to storm Olim's quarters. The housekeeper captures him and chains him in the cellar. She also locks Olim in his room. Severin realizes the dangers and the absurdity of his hatred and forgives Olim. Before being turned out of the castle by her aunt and heading for Silverlake, Fennimore releases both Severin and Olim. But Olim is no longer master. To shield Severin from prison, he had falsified his report, and the housekeeper, with that ace, drives both men out into a bitter snowstorm. They too head for Silverlake, presumably to die from exposure and starvation, but Kaiser inserts a fantastic twist – much like the purification trials at the end of Die Zauberflöte, Beethoven's chorus of prisoners in Fidelio, or the final scene in Goethe's Faust. In Ian Kemp's words, "vengeance and retribution… are mastered by friendship and trust, and the result is not disaster, but wonder." The voice of Fennimore and a chorus of spirits draws both men on. "Wer weiter muss, den trägt der Silbersee" (Silverlake will bear whoever must go farther). The snowstorm disappears. The landscape blooms with Spring. Only the lake remains frozen. Both men are spiritually redeemed, but they must continue. In verses more than a little reminiscent of Goethe's Chorus Mysticus, Fennimore and the chorus sing:

Alles, was ist, ist Beginnen
und verliert sich noch hinter der Zeit,
wie die Stunden der Nacht doch verinnen
in den Anbruch der Helligkeit.
All that is, is a beginning
and loses itself behind time,
as the hours of the night
trickle into the break of brightness.

Both Weill and Kaiser had rejected this kind of "solution" in earlier works, but times had changed. Again, Hitler had risen to power. The sharp protest and satire of Weill and Brecht's Mahagonny or Happy End seemed less important than an appeal to humanity and hope – an appeal which Weill returned to again and again in his American works. Within its historical context, Silbersee's ending becomes poignant, because it is indeed a fairy-tale ending. In other words, its creators hope in spite of what their intellect tells them. Even if we grant the historical justification of the ending, it still jars with the earlier scenes, but it's a powerfand convincing discord. Weill and Kaiser thought of this collaboration as "a play with music," or even a Singspiel – again like Die Zauberflöte, but with a difference. Music arises "naturally," for the most part, within the context of the play, as in Fennimore's ballad, or, earlier, the workings of Olim's conscience. Here, it expresses what reality cannot.

As we've seen, the plot has obvious similarities to Mozart's Zauberflöte – the wicked Queen of the Night, the young girl as shining goal, the purification trial, for example – but I also find parallels to Beethoven's Fidelio. A woman disguised ingratiates herself with the villain so that she can free men unjustly imprisoned – not only behind actual chains and locks, but imprisoned by their minds as well. This seems one of the major themes of the German theater from at least the Twenties on. Indeed, Brecht makes a life's work from it. What frustrates and agitates an audience so much in a Brecht play is the realization that the characters' own attitudes victimize them. We can see the way out of the maze, but the characters can't. For Brecht (mistakenly seen as primarily a political poet; if anything, an Old Testament prophet at his angriest) and for Kaiser, I believe, right action is highly unlikely without right thought.

The music is an odd mix. Throughout his short life, Weill's music kept changing, while remaining recognizably his. Although a Singspiel, Silbersee has fewer detachable songs than Dreigroschenoper or Happy End. Where those two works used singing actors, Silbersee needs a combination of singing actors and, mainly, real singers. The great Ernst Busch, who stands in roughly the same artistic relation to Hanns Eisler as Lenya does to Weill, played the original Olim, who has exactly one Eisler-ish number. On the other hand, Severin is a tenor, and while Fennimore's songs have been sung by Gisela May and Lotte Lenya, other numbers require a mezzo. This mix may have hindered revivals of the work. Kaiser and Weill seem to have intended it for theater companies with access to a local opera house – a normal situation in Germany, but not in the United States. Consequently, there are fewer "hits."

The music sounds, in general, more compassionate than acerbic, although the overture and "Cäsars Tod" recall the knockabout satiric farce Happy End. In particular, Weill has provided some beautiful choral passages, as well as stretches of melodrama (music accompanying spoken text) which lend great poignancy to the characters and foreshadow the masterpieces of his final period – Street Scene and Lost in the Stars. Essentially, Weill, like most composers in the Thirties, feels less the need to shock than to consolidate and integrate his inventions with the past. Thus, in the "Shopgirls' Duet," we get a totally unapologetic, straightforward waltz in the refrain, whereas in the earlier Mahagonny, for example, Weill mercilessly and hilariously parodies such forms as symbols of schmaltz, weakness, and sentimentality. Here, he reserves his acid for portraying the Fascist characters – von Luber and her friend Baron Laur. Yet every number shows great musical focus and incisiveness. The purification scene – dramatically crucial – lies furthest from the sentiments Weill had previously expressed, but Weill rises to the dramatic challenge in an extended finale that, in its inexorable forward impulse, recalls Mozart's Masonic trial scene. This constitutes some of the noblest music Weill wrote, and yet it doesn't (as Krenek in a similar scene of spirits in Johnny spielt auf) rip off the 19th century. Rather, it extends the idiom Weill had already fashioned and allows Weill to address his countrymen as a contemporary artist warning about contemporary threats and holding out – in the form of Fennimore's solo voice, with which the play ends – attainable hope.

I don't hesitate to call this the best performance of the work I've heard, surpassing even a festival concert performance in the 1970s with such luminaries as Anna Silja. Latham-König gets a crisp attack and bounce from his players and the chorus, in good, though not spectacular, digital stereo sound. The principals both sing and act capably. Hans Korte, as Olim, is especially good. Hildegard Heichele and Eva Tamassy – the Fennimore and Frau von Luber, respectively – deliver their spoken lines well and know how to act when they sing. The Severin, Wolfgang Schmidt, has a good voice but, for some reason, convinces me less in character. However, the only overactor is Baron Laur, played by Udo Holdorf. Indeed, the dramatic presentation, even in the smallest parts, tells me the exact level of Woeful operatic productions in the United States usually reach, even in our most prestigious houses. Americans will probably never encounter this work live, and because it requires dramatic skills, that's probably a good thing for Weill. I shudder to think of a Met production. This CD therefore represents your best chance to discover a master at the top of his game.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz