Friday, April 27, 2012

Tonight I saw Wolfgang Rihm’s opera, Jakob Lenz, an ENO/Hampstead Theatre co-production.

The opera is based on a true story, written by Georg Buchner, and centres on the mental disintegration of a celebrated poet and playwright, Jakob Lenz, in Alsace in the late 1770s. Lenz, distraught and tormented by voices and hallucinations, arrives at the home of a pastor, Oberlin, who takes him in. What follows is Lenz’s progressive descent into madness, punctuated by suicide attacks. Although Lenz’s fragile mental state is primarily obsessed with the female focus of his unrequited love, religion also features prominently.

The contemporary and prolific German composer, Wolfgang Rihm, wrote the chamber opera in 1977/78, when he was just 25. The current ENO/Hampstead Theatre co-production is the first English language staging, with Sam Brown as director and Andrew Shore, mesmerising and totally believable, as the harrowing and tormented Lenz.

In the programme notes, Bernd Feuchtner shares Rihm’s recent statement that the first person he had ever seen composing was his grandfather. As his grandfather was very ill at the time, Rihm immediately associated the creative act with suffering. Perhaps then, Rihm’s association with Jakob Lenz, which depicts unrelenting and unremitting suffering, that of madness and its accompanying sense of hopelessness and ultimate destruction, is not so surprising. Undoubtedly, the original story laid out the textual content, but Rihm’s score heightens the sense of existential human suffering, to an almost unbearable degree. The music and sounds are unpredictable, often surprising, sometimes shocking. You never know what to expect next, as Lenz’s behaviour becomes increasingly uncontrollable, and Rihm’s score serves to enhance this threatening sense of the unknown.

Water features, on a narrow, almost claustrophic stage, with ponds and tangles of reeds. This deeply atmospheric staging serves the theme well. Lenz is constrained by his madness, and there is no escape, not even when he submerges himself in the murky water, only to rise again. In the end, he abandons the idea of killing himself. Yet the madness continues and escalates, which his friends cannot bear to watch. Restrained and shackled, straitjacket-like, his friends leave him (as does the audience), underneath the sinister shadow of the chapel.

This is not an easy performance, there is no let-up in the torment that is Lenz’s life, who exists in ‘our’ world, yet also in a world inhabited by many other voices that no-one else can hear and share.

In the programme notes, an interview with the Director Sam Brown raises the question of whether the story of one man’s descent into madness is still relevant today. By response, Brown states his belief that, although opera in this century tends to have a much broader focus, he prefers to work on ideas about the inside of the individual’s mind. I welcome this view. Watching Jakob Lenz tonight, I did not feel that I was watching an isolated story of one individual’s descent into madness, but rather that I was witnessing something profound, disturbing and shocking, about the alienating and potentially universal experience of human suffering.