This was a night of high drama. Not only did the redoubtable Andrew Shore  make not one but two attempts to drown himself, one within the opening bars of Wolfgang Rihm’s 1979 opera, Jakob Lenz, but we also saw his fantasy of the drowning of a child – a little too realistic for me.  When I saw the Flower Maidens in Calixto Bieito’s Parsifal dressed as post-apocolyptic victims of abuse, sporting their fur coats and drawing on their silk underwear, bound with clingfilm and parcel tape, in bright red lipstick, I thought I’d seen it all.  But at the first night of Jakob Lenz we witnessed a number of near-death experiences, not just the drowning child and Lenz’s suicide attempts, but Mr Shore slipping on the mud of Annemarie Woods’ set in his frenzy, several old ladies in the front row coming close to being gassed by dry ice and Suzy Cooper, playing the haunting focus of Lenz’s fantasies dicing with death as the elevated platform on which she danced flexed ominously on its ropes.

But just as Hollywood actresses agree to nudity ‘if the script justifies it,’ all this was entirely necessary to make sense for an English audience of this extraordinary work. It has had a previous UK premiere back in 1987 at the Almeida and has been performed in the States in German; but this was the first realisation of Jakob Lenz in English in a dramatic translation by Richard Stokes. This is a seminal work of the operatic canon, one which has been performed literally hundreds of times throughout the world, given a fresh look and an extra dimension by this co-production between English National Opera and the Hampstead Theatre.  It calls into question why we don’t see work like this all the time in British houses and why we see few of the other operatic gems written outside the UK since 1979 brought into the UK and given the treatment they deserve.

Annemarie Woods worked miracles with such a confined space.  The Hampstead Theatre is effectively horseshoe shaped, hence the unwitting proximity of the grannies to the noxious gasses and a dripping Andrew Shore. When the lights came up, we saw a small rectangle which was bordered by reeds and the A-frame of a church under construction.  We might have been on the Kent marshes of David Lean’s 1964 Great Expectations with the prow of a boat emerging from the mist; in fact we were in land-locked Waldersbach in Alsace where the already-deranged Lenz has taken refuge with Pastor Oberlin. It’s not a boat but the rear wall of a Lutheran church which is being built out of timber. The chorus of six voices wear 18th century agricultural workers’ costumes and alternate between being churchgoers and the demons of Lenz’s fantasies. I saw resonances of Snape and the bleakness of Peter Grimes in the scene-painting, but heard shades of The Turn of the Screw with the dark tonalities of the bass clarinet and the pair of ‘evil’ children who oversee the drowning of a peer.

The very able director of this production is Sam Brown, who last year won both the European Opera Directing Prize and the Ring Award, supported in Austria by the Richard-Wagner-Verband International – appropriate as somehow Mr Brown brought the scope of Wagner’s Dutchman into this pocket-sized theatre.  Acoustically the Hampstead Theatre is better for chamber opera than the Young Vic, but it’s really not big enough for a work of such power. Not only were the grannies at the front gassed, but many of us felt the need to shield our ears from the sometimes overwhelming volume of the percussionist, sitting pretty in his ear protectors. Contemporary opera may look as small-scale on paper as Monteverdi, but modern instruments and operatic voices need more room please.

On first hearing, Sam Brown the director admits he found the music a little difficult to understand, but soon comprehended such an important tenet of composition today: “sometimes you can more appreciate beauty when it’s surrounded by complexity and things you can’t understand.” For me there were many moments of breathtaking beauty in Rihm’s score, like shafts of light illuminating a clearing in the forst, especially when the chorus gives us hints of the consonance of a Lutheran chorale, but also in a typically eclectic Rihm, quoting from Schubert or Berg or whatever pops into his head.  This is a depiction of madness, not in the more overt way which you can see in Arbeit, Nahrung, Wohnung by the younger German composer, Enno Poppe, who illustrates the loneliness, iconoclasm and general angst of the shipwrecked Crusoe, (although at times you can hear a distillation of Rihm in Poppe’s soundworld.)  It was the pioneering work of R. D. Laing which finally enabled us to understand that schizophrenics believe their world is the real one, that it is the rest of us who are delusional.  As Sam Brown writes, “This is an opera about a sane man existing in a world which he perceives as going mad.”

Rihm’s comprehension of what he needed to do to to ‘enter Lenz’s world’ (as a therapist would say) is exceptional. As he explains, “To present a person like Lenz onstage is complicated not least by the fact that he contains within him several different theatrical spaces. The music has to represent these ever-present arenas.” In this commission from the Hamburg State Opera, Rihm employed the librettist, Michael Fröhling to create a drama from the novella by Georg Büchner.  Both Lenz and Goethe, when they were associated, were part of the proto-Romantic movement of Sturm und Drang which advocated a realistic and emotionally-engaging approach to life expressed through art, in part an extreme reaction to the stilted archetypes of opera seria.  Not only did Lenz become obsessed with the idealogy of Sturm und Drang, but he had an unfortunate propensity to fall head over heels in love with unavailable women, including Friederike Brion, who had herself been jilted by Goethe.  His scurrilous writing caused him to be cast out of the Weimar court, Goethe’s married sister who did seem to at least reciprocate Lenz’s affection died from complications in childbirth and he was sent as a last resort to Pastor Oberlin, a renowned philanthropist who was endeavoured to bring the Lutheran precepts to the peasants of Alsace.

Rihm’s Jakob Lenz depicts those few weeks spent in Oberlin’s company in 1778 up to the point where the pastor and Lenz’s one remaining friend, Kaufman are forced to throw up their hands in despair and leave the mad poet to his own devices. Kaufman, sung by the American tenor, Richard Roberts is at times a foppish Weimar courtier, prepared to soil his silk shoes in those stagnant pools for the sake of his old friend.  At other times Mr Brown makes him a caricature of himself, screaming in the haute-contre tessitura of his voice reminiscent of Heinz Zednik as Mime at Bayreuth. This is clearly Kaufman as Lenz sees him. Oberlin, sung by the gloriously dark-chocolate voiced Jonathan Best, is mainly tolerant, concerned, even puzzled at his friend’s behaviour, but finally loses his Christian compassion and leaves Lenz tied to a chair. The exasperated Oberlin is the one we see through Lenz’s eyes.  The peasant chorus either displays the simplicity of those who work on the land, or they too turn against Lenz in the delusional prison of his mind and become evil marsh spirits, carrying scythes like Death and cutting down the reeds. Sam Brown takes this mismatch between Lenz’s internal world and the world of reality one step further by embodying Friederike, subject of Lenz’s fevered fantasies, who appears in full 18th century silks and coiffured beehive, gratingly out of place on the bleak wetlands.  The children are of course rustic innocents in real life and Miles and Flora, wilfully drowning another Friederike whom Lenz confuses in his mind with the woman he loves.  All credit to Rebecca van den Berg, Alexa Mason, Sigridur Osk, Louise Collett, Jimmy Holliday and Barnaby Rea, especially the latter-day Flora and Miles.

Members of the ENO orchestra, directed by Alex Ingram played this music as if they were members of Ensemble Modern or MusikFabrik.  The vocal setting offers yet more hints of Britten or perhaps even Tippett; the orchestral writing is atmospheric, angst-ridden, occasionally serene with glimpses of Heaven through the church’s portal. But at the heart of this production is an extraordinary tour-de-force by Andrew Shore. He is a great British actor-singer whose talents are in demand throughout the world, including at Bayreuth.  He claims Sir Geraint Evans was an important influence, but the way he threw himself into this role and commanded the stage reminded me more of John Tomlinson.  Today he doesn’t have the richness of tone of a Geraint Evans, but Mr Shore clearly has a far greater dramatic range than the stock figures of fun in opera buffa on whom he cut his teeth.  Apparently Rihm’s soundworld posed quite a challenge to Mr Shore who relishes the music of Tippett and could almost be typecast as Wozzeck, but you wouldn’t know it. He does have an extraordinary stage presence and an effortless facility for moving from singing to declamation or from baritone to falsetto. I sincerely hope he didn’t pull a muscle as a result of his total commitment to the character and the production because he has another five performances between now and April 27. This is a must-see event, which I for one am seriously considering seeing a second time.

4 stars

Miranda Jackson

Opera Britannia

(Photos by Stephen Cummiskey)

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