Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz in Zurich: madness at its finest

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Rihm, Jakob Lenz: Soloists, Zürcher Kammerorchester / Adrian Kelly (conductor). Zurich Opera, 26.10.2022. (MF)

Jonas Jud (Oberlin), Yannick Debus (Lenz), Maximilian Lawrie (Kaufmann) © Toni Suter

Director – Mélanie Huber
Set and Costumes – Lena Hiebel
Lighting – Dino Strucken
Dramaturgy – Fabio Dietsche

Lenz – Yannick Debus
Oberlin – Jonas Jud
Kaufmann – Maximilian Lawrie
6 Voices – Chelsea Zurflüh, Bożena Bujnicka, Freya Apffelstaedt, Simone McIntosh, Amin Ahangaran, Gregory Feldmann
Children – Nina Gringolts, Lavinia Scorsin, Noelia Finocchiaro

Wolfgang Rihm’s opera Jakob Lenz is based on Georg Büchner’s novel about a young man’s descent into insanity. Büchner’s Lenz, posthumously published in 1839, has been characterised as the ‘first ever third-person text written from inside lunacy’.

The plot is set in January 1778. Jakob Lenz, the eighteenth-century Sturm und Drang playwright, wanders through the Vosges mountains ‘as if madness were chasing him on horses’. The hounded poet finds refuge with the Alsatian priest and social reformer Johann Friedrich Oberlin. While sheltered by the well-meaning Oberlin, ghosts of Lenz’ past haunt and villagers confront him, as does his former friend Kaufmann.

Büchner was 23 when he authored the novel about the 26-year-old Lenz. 200 years after the events, in 1978, the then 26-year-old Rihm set out to compose this opera in 13 scenes. Zurich opera, in cooperation with the Zürcher Kammerorchester and the International Opera Studio (IOS), stages this production in homage to Rihm, who turned 70 this year.

The work’s primary aim is a musical psychogram. Rihm describes his opera as ‘an hour’s extreme chamber music, not so much a commentary, rather a presentation of the protagonist at multi-layered plot level.’ Much of this is Rihm having set to music the voices ‘which Lenz alone hears’. With its highly expressive, sharp-edged, but also lyrically sensitive tone, the score is a straight path into its main character’s soul.

Freya Apffelstaedt, Bożena Bujnicka, Simone McIntosh, Chelsea Zurflüh (Voices), Yannick Debus (Lenz), Gregory Feldmann, Amin Ahangaran (Voices) © Toni Suter

And lucky we are to be there. Swiss director Mélanie Huber uses a minimalist setting to maximum effect. The only props in Lena Hiebel’s brilliantly reduced set are light and multipurpose plywood, such as blocks serving as mountains, a fountain basin, bedrooms and also as a frame for Lenz’ tormented inner life. The six voices are clad in monochromatically timeless costumes. Lenz gets to cover his whiteish grey self with a bright red coat, especially when in dialogue with Oberlin and Kaufmann, both in dramatic red and orange. Pastor Oberlin warms his head with a crimson smurf bonnet.

By now Jakob Lenz is of the most frequently performed chamber operas of the twentieth century; and yet, when first confronted with the score, German baritone Yannick Debus felt it was utterly unsingable. Thankfully he overcame the initial shock. Debus, an IOS alumnus, is on stage for the full 75 minutes of the performance for a thrilling vocal and physical tour de force, interpreting his role’s wide range of mental states, from harrowing madness to boundless exaltation. Quite simply spectacular!

He is supported, accompanied and often feels menaced by the ‘six voices’, who take turns acting as a chorus-like ensemble illustrating Lenz’s inner life, as real-life villagers or helping out as stagehands rearranging the wooden boxes. The six IOS members Chelsea Zurflüh, Bozena Bujnicka, Freya Apffelstaedt, Simone McIntosh, Amin Ahangaran and Gregory Feldman deliver a compelling and poignant performance. The two other principal characters, Oberlin and Kaufmann, are also IOS members, Jonas Jud with his warm and compassionate bass and English tenor Maximilian Lawrie.

Adrian Kelly leads the Zürcher Kammerorchester. The orchestra consists of a mere dozen musicians, including a cembalo, producing a stirring and powerful sound, occasionally verging on the electronic. It is direct, intense, and includes choral elements, a sarabande and even a jazzy trumpet bit at the end.

The memorable evening takes place not on the main stage of Zurich opera but at ZKO Haus, right on the very edge of town. A former power current laboratory where stage and auditorium are one, it provides a congenial surrounding to the high-voltage brain waves of Jakob Lenz.

Sadly, there will be no further performances this season, but we hope the production will be revived either in Zurich or on tour. The set’s ingenious simplicity certainly lends itself to travelling. This reviewer ends with a note to self: look out for more IOS cum ZKO productions!

Michael Fischer

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