Jakob Lenz, English National Opera, ENO, Hampstead Theatre, April 2012

It’s not often you see the main performer in an opera fall into deep water on stage. In fact I’m sure I’ve never seen such a thing before, and this was not metaphorical water. It was the real thing, and Andrew Shore gave a remarkable performance as the eponymous character.

Lenz and Friederike

Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz was a German dramatist, writer and poet, born in what is now Latvia in 1751. After being banished from Weimar in 1776 for writing a scurrilous poem poking fun at various members of the court, his life gradually became dominated by mental instability, sympathetically portrayed in a prose study by Georg Büchner — known to opera lovers as the author of a play on which Berg’s Wozzeck is based. Büchner’s work inspired this chamber opera by Wolfgang Rihm, written in 1977–78.

It is in thirteen scenes, which are carried through without a break, the whole thing lasting just 75 minutes. But what an experience this is of a man descending into madness, or is he sane and the world around him is going gradually crazy? The water is ever present. He falls into it again, and again, and in scene 5 after preaching in the church he baptises a girl by submersion. Later the child is drowned by Friederike Brion, an ex-lover of Goethe about whom Lenz felt passionately. She lies dead even after Lenz commands her, “Arise and walk”, … but then later Friederike escorts her from the stage. It was all in Lenz’s mind, and it was an inspiration by director Sam Brown to bring in an actress to portray Friederike in a full eighteenth hair-do and finery.

The other singing roles here are taken by Jonathan Best as the Lutheran pastor, building a new church whose roof is finally fitted in the last scene, and Richard Roberts as Kaufmann, a friend of Lenz who comes to visit him in the village in Alsace. He too is dressed in eighteenth century finery with rouged cheeks, serving to contrast the urban world that Lenz has left with the natural world he now inhabits.

Designs by Annemarie Woods with excellent lighting by Guy Hoare help give an almost supernatural sense of impending insanity, very apposite to Lenz’s condition which many have considered to be a case of schizophrenia. This is a fascinating work and the programme notes help illuminate the background to Lenz himself.

Musically the rhythms keep changing, and the small orchestra of eleven players, including three cellos but no other stringed instruments, was very ably conducted by Alex Ingram. He seemed effortlessly to keep the singers in phase with the music, which can’t be easy. Sam Brown’s production is not to be missed, but what really made this such a remarkable performance was Andrew Shore in the title role.

Performances continue until April 27 — for details click here.

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