ENO Sets an Example in Staging Wolfgang Rihm Chamber Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wolfgang Rihm, Jakob Lenz: Soloists, Members of Orchestra of the English National Opera / Alexander Ingram (conductor). Hampstead Theatre, 19.4.2012 (MB)

(sung in English)


Lenz – Andrew Shore
Pastor Oberlin – Jonathan Best
Kaufmann – Richard Roberts
Friederike Brion – Suzy Cooper
Voices – Rebecca van den Berg, Alexa Mason, Sigridur Osk, Louise Collett, Jimmy Holliday, Barnaby Rea
Children – Eleanor Grant, Harry Foster, Lille Forrester


Sam Brown (director)
Annemarie Woods (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)
Anjali Mehra (choreography)


Jakob Lenz : Andrew Shore, Suzy Cooper

This co-production between ENO and Hampstead Theatre, supported by ENO’s Contemporary Opera Group and the English National Opera Trust, marked a welcome second British staging, the first for a generation, of Wolfgang Rihm’s chamber opera, Jakob Lenz. It is, sadly, a reminder of quite how parochial much of this country’s musical, especially operatic, life has become, though ENO is certainly doing its bit at the moment, with Detlev Glanert’s Caligula due to be staged at the Coliseum next month. There remains, of course, a persistently pressing need for several more runs of La traviata and La bohème. Enough of that, however; let us give thanks for a company willing to demonstrate some degree of commitment to the work of contemporary composers who do not happen to be British. (And for a reminder of a truly enlightened Intendant, uninterested in nationalistic considerations, click here, forwarding to 2:10 if necessary, though it is well worth listening to what comes before, once the sound adjusts.)

Rihm is, of course, a major figure in contemporary opera, though I have only seen one work of his staged previously, Das Gehege in Munich. Jakob Lenz, his second opera, was first staged in Hamburg in 1979, following quickly upon a Mannheim staging for his first opera, Faust und Yorick,in 1977. Set to a libretto by Michael Fröhling, based of course upon Büchner’s novella, it treats with the troubled poet’s visit to the Vosges in 1778. Arriving at the house of Pastor Oberlin, Lenz suffers hallucinations relating to Friederike Brion, whom Goethe has abandoned but who is still in love with him. (Friederike is here played on stage, but she has no lines.) Christoph Kaufmann, friend of Lenz and a poet himself, tries unsuccessfully to persuade Lenz to return to his family. Lenz discovers the body of a dead Friederike, not Brion, but a girl from a neighbouring village, though he thinks them one and the same; he tries – and fails – to resurrect her. As his condition deteriorates, Oberlin and Kaufmann abandon him.

There is certainly a great deal of expressionist Angst to be heard in the score, itself constructed in rondo-like fashion, thirteen scenes interspersed with interludes over the course of roughly an hour-and-a-quarter. Wozzeck is perhaps too obvious a presence, whether in subject matter or design; it cannot be said that the comparison does many favours to Rihm. For whilst there is a great deal of virtuosity to his writing for eleven orchestral players (three cellos, two oboes, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, and harpsichord), and a number of effects work well on their own terms, not least Lenz’s ‘Voices’, it remains difficult, as I have often found in Rihm’s work, to discern much of an individual compositional voice. Other influences surely include Henze and, increasingly apparent, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (perhaps more apparent on account of the performance taking place in English). I even wondered whether there was a good dose of Britten thrown in for good measure, though that may have been coincidence rather than influence. Parody, though less extreme than that of Maxwell Davies, is apparent in the treatment of chorales for the church congregation. It is all theatrically effective in its way, not something to be taken for granted, but insofar as I was moved, it was more on account of the strength of the performances rather than the work itself. Moreover, there is less of a descent into madness than one might have expected; the poet’s state is parlous all along, without very much in the way of development.

If I say, then, that I am unsure why the work is a chamber opera rather than a music theatre piece, I do not mean that as a criticism of the staging it here received, more as a comment upon Jakob Lenz itself. Sam Brown’s production is perhaps surprisingly ‘traditional’, set when and where the libretto prescribes, ably designed by Annemarie Woods. Sub-Friedrich images, a church, and above all the water in which Lenz tries to drown himself – obvious shades of Alberich and the Rhine for Andrew Shore – heighten the Gothic effect. There is certainly something creepy about prettified children, parishioners, and their bonnets. Brown in the programme says that ‘Büchner is so specific to certain weeks in 1778 that it seemed perverse to try and change it.’ Perhaps, though we are not dealing directly with Büchner. Even so, I could not help but think that a little more abstraction might have added to a sense of contemporary interest; it is not clear to me that the opera is in any sense ‘about’ the eighteenth century, nor indeed ‘about’ Alsace. That may all, however, just be a matter of my taste, rather than anything fundamental.

Shore’s Lenz was a powerful portrayal, occasional spread at the top of the range more than compensated for by dramatic truth. He held the stage throughout, and rightly received warm applause. Jonathan Best ably evoked a concerned if ultimately impotent Oberlin, whilst Richard Roberts, if a little hamstrung by the bizarrely caricatured foppery of Kaufmann, impressed vocally too. The Voices – two sopranos, two mezzos, two basses – haunted and disoriented, though the children’s intonation was at times problematical. Alexander Ingram led an incisive account, with Members of the ENO Orchestra on splendid form. The Hampstead Theatre acoustic is perhaps not ideal, but then one can say that of many venues.

Mark Berry