'Die Silbersee' (the Silver Lake), Kurt Weill's first major work after his split with Bertolt Brecht, is a strange mixture of Gothic and political allegory, a sort of leftist 'Fidelio'. It tells the story of unemployed Severin, shot after robbing a food store by policeman Olim. Consumed (arf!) by guilt, Olim, now a lottery winner, takes Severin into his castle in an attempt to expiate his crime, but Severin is crazed with thoughts of vengeance against his malefactor. A plot involving scheming, ex-aristocratic servants, sees Olim locked in the attic and Severin chained in the basement.
Where Brecht wielded his merciless satire with the lightness and swiftness of a stabbing, Georg Kaiser's libretto for 'Die Silbersee' is vague and turgid, with a more typically Teutonic mysticism and more concern for the abstraction 'humanity' than the individual. This can have an adverse effect on Weill's musical writing, which is heavier, almost more 'Romantic', than his famous collaborations with Brecht. The rigid call and response tableaux written by Kaiser create a static drama, very similar to sacred music, with the choir, supposedly representing mankind, both fugal and ethereal.
Any yet there is much in 'Die Silbersee' of the old Weill to thrill us - the propulsive, skittish rhythms and keening, slashing strings. The most conventionally beautiful music - melodious, waltz-like, even sentimental - belongs, significantly, to the ideologically suspect, which may only confirm that the devil has the best tunes. But, overall, Weill manages to creat a compelling tension between a laborious, monolithic, monotonous libretto, and music so disturbing, dark and rich as to be more rite than opera.
(Note: you might be interested to know that 'Die Silbersee' in its original form (premiered by Douglas Sirk in Leipzig, film fans!) is unworkable: too much difficult music for singing actors, too long a play for opera singers. The present recording is a working version devised by David Drew and Josef Heinselmann for a German radio broadcast in 1989, keeping the dialogue to the minimum necessary to follow the plot. Few will mourn such economy).