Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz (1978) tells of the eighteenth century ‘Sturm und Drang’ poet, whose infatuation with Friederike Brion, a young woman whom Goethe adored, pushes him to such despair that even suicide ceases to be an option.
In the first ever English translation, produced by Richard Stokes to commemorate the German composer’s sixtieth birthday, there are no holds barred. The set is a heavy swamp of water, reeds and mud, framed by the silhouette of a church, while the drowning of a girl is portrayed with disturbing realism.
They say that getting naked is the highest sacrifice one can make for art, but repeatedly plunging neck deep into water while maintaining perfect tone must run it a close second. This is what Andrew Shore, one of the greatest actors in the operatic business, does in a performance as Lenz that will live long in the memory. Shore’s achievement is to make the poet’s despair so all-embracing that we could never picture him as being anything other than disturbed to the point of wretchedness. He is complemented by Jonathan Best’s excellent Pastor, and Richard Roberts’ foppish Kaufmann whose own approach to art we find easy to view through Lenz’s eyes as fatuous.
Rihm’s music is all sliding strings, sinuous wind, haunting percussion and choral chanting and wailing. It is conducted exceptionally well by Alex Ingram, although it will never be the most accessible score for first time opera-goers.
Jakob Lenz is a must for any fan of either Rihm or Shore, but at £45 for a seventy minute chamber opera, it is a large investment for the merely curious. Greater value probably lies in one of the ENO’s other five productions this season, with the Coliseum offering tickets at a wider range of prices for both the classics and rarities. This should not, however, detract from the quality of Sam Brown’s production, which could hardly do greater justice to Rihm’s incredible creation.
Until 27 April (six performances). Tickets: 020 7722 9301 or from the Hampstead Theatre website.
The performance on 26 April will be recorded for a future broadcast on BBC Radio 3, unspecified at the time of writing.
Photo: Andrew Shore as the poet, Jakob Lenz, and Suzy Cooper as the object of his infatuation, Friederike Brion, © Stephen Cummiskey.