Jakob Lenz

Helen Wallace reviews a visceral production of Wolfgang Rihm's opera Jakob Lenz

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To be brutal, Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz (1979) is a watered-down version of Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) – a sort of German Romantic 13 Songs for a Mad Poet without the condensed, white-hot inspiration of Davies’s masterpiece. True, it has a larger cast and at 75 minutes a larger span – but it, too, depicts a man spiralling into madness, seen through his own eyes. That said, it’s well-worth seeing.
 
It was an inspired move by ENO to take this chamber piece into the confines of the Hampstead Theatre. Compared with the Young Vic, this stage combines intimacy with a better, more spacious acoustic. Sam Brown’s production could hardly have been more viscerally eloquent: as you enter the dark theatre, the air crawls with damp and the seeping stench of dirty water. Psychological dissolution is laid out in the muddy, misty, reedy scene, and death gapes in a deep pool into which Lenz plunges several times. With its austerely beautiful mountain backdrop, Annemarie Woods's set says everything about Nature in the 18th century, its wild allure, its discomfort, its physical danger.
 
Though musically tautly dramatic, the plot, based on a short story by Büchner. is static: Jakob Lenz (Andrew Shore), a celebrated playwright and poet, seeks refuge in the home of a Lutheran pastor Oberlin (Jonathan Best) but is tormented by imaginary voices and visions of Friederike Brion, Goethe’s former lover and now the object of his passion. He attempts suicide but fails. His friend poet Kaufmann (Richard Roberts) visits but in the end both friends despair of helping him, and leave him to his deranged fate.
 
It was Andrew Shore’s night: he inhabited the role physically and vocally with searing pathos, from his commanding coherence, ‘In Art, nothing can be too trivial or too ugly, I demand in all things Life,’ to his weird, equine compulsion or whispered self-loathing.
 
Jonathan Best has an unenviable, passive role but failed to convince us he was struggling to respond to Shore’s outlandish antics. Roberts brought light relief as the dandy poet Kaufmann, while the baleful children were as creepy as anything in Britten, and the chorus had an impressive range: gaily dressed in folkloric costume, they shift imperceptibly from harmonious singing peasants to spitting, devil-like apparitions, by the means of deft, stylised movement. The decision to embody Lenz’s vision of Brion in a silent actress was effective, and gave reality to Lenz’s piteous hope.
 
The 25 year-old Rihm conjured a formidably distinctive score, pitting three cellos against oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, harpsichord and percussion. The action is driven on by dynamic pizzicato chattering, the sly elegance of harpsichord with the harsh braying of brass aptly evoking psychosis. Here was a composer with imagination ablaze: his dark sonorities prove fiendishly articulate, while his singers are given sustained, sinuous freedom. At one point we hear a quote from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, and the opera is haunted powerfully by the ghosts of Romantic lost souls, Schumann and Hölderlin, which gives it a unique resonance not shared by Maxwell Davies’s work.
 
With all tickets at £45, it’s unlikely younger listeners will take the risk, but they will miss an important piece of contemporary theatre, and proof that the 1970s did produce a timeless classic. 

Jakob Lenz runs at the Hampstead Theatre on 21,24,26,27 April

 Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine