Monday 6 April 2015

Rihm - Jakob Lenz (La Monnaie, 2015 - Webcast)

Wolfgang Rihm - Jakob Lenz

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2015

Franck Ollu, Andrea Breth, Georg Nigl, Henry Waddington, John Graham-Hall, Irma Mihelic, Olga Heikkilä, Maria Fiselier, Stine Marie Fischer, Dominic Große, Eric Ander

La Monnaie Streaming - March 2015

It's not difficult to see the commonality between Wolfgang Rihm's 1979 opera Jakob Lenz and Alban Berg's masterpiece, Wozzeck. Both operas come from works written by Georg Büchner, both are fairly intense episodic expressionist pieces that deal with mental disintegration, and both are composed in a variety or totality of styles that takes in tonality, atonality, formal traditional structures and occasional gestures that push at the limits of what music can express.

That is evidently the kind of music that is called out for by the nature of the subject itself. Jakob Lenz was an 18th century German poet in Goethe's circle of writers who suffered from bouts of mental illness and died in 1792 at the age of 41. Concerned about his state of mind, Lenz is invited by a sympathetic pastor, Oberlin, to stay at his house in the country in the year 1778. He hopes that in taking Lenz away from the stresses of his life and bringing him closer to nature that he might help ease his problems and inspire him in other ways. The stay however only seems to make matters worse for the troubled poet.

The difficult nature of the subject itself - the work essentially entering into the head of a man who is going insane - inevitably means that the musical expression in Rihm's opera can itself be very difficult to grasp. The music has to respond to some extreme emotions and go to unrecognisable and uncomfortable places that aren't commonly explored by an audience. As well as expressing those extreme states, even including a harpsichord in the orchestra for 18th century authenticity, the use of a small chamber orchestra also allows the composer to express little intimate details, making those feelings discernible and tangible.

It's not all full-blown insanity however, and a little less challenging than another experimental work in this field, Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King. As well as showing us the inner turmoil, the music of Jakob Lenz also deals with the external reality, otherwise the work would surely be unlistenable. It's still difficult enough since it as to function on multiple levels, dramatically, narratively and musically, not only depicting inner and outer states, but developing a less than obvious connection that lies between them. If it makes sense at all, it's only within the head of Jakob Lenz, for whom this is all "Logical", as he repeats in the final words of the opera.

The challenge of putting on a stage production of Jakob Lenz is surely no less challenging than the musical performance, as the work alternates between the inner mind and outer reality. It needs to throw you straight in there at the start, experiencing the working of a tortured mind, before showing you the reality of the poet's position. Although the split and distinction between the two is a feature of the set design, it doesn't get any easier to distinguish thereafter the boundary of reality lies and where it breaks down, whether it's little bits of madness that are infecting the view of reality or indeed whether it's only a few moments of lucidity that creep into the poet's prolonged and increasingly disturbed bouts of madness.

With streams of water running down the stage and rocky landscapes intruding into the pastor's house, Andrea Breth's direction and Martin Zehetgruber's set designs tend to suggest that even reality is very much subjective here in terms of how Lenz sees the world. In terms of narrative, you can still discern that Lenz is at the home of Pastor Oberlin, that he is visited by his friend Kaufmann, and that in those rare periods of lucidity Lenz debates with them the difficulty of deriving inspiration or even any kind of joy from nature or from pretty words. He is looking more and more inward, retreating into solitude, like Wozzeck, disappointed with life and being gradually broken down by his own torments.

Those torments are not only difficult to comprehend, they are inevitably difficult to express on stage. Principally, much of the madness and the breakdown between the mind and reality is expressed in the form of Lenz's beloved Friedericke. Here, Lenz's obsession with the image of Friedericke becomes entwined with that of a young child who has drowned in a neighbouring village, with even Oberlin appearing wearing tresses at one point. All this further becomes combined in a strange mix of religious rites that suggest questions of death and rebirth.

It's all fairly bleak stuff, and even quite harrowing in places. Franck Ollu however approaches the work with a calm solemnity and precision, allowing the music to be expressive without becoming too harsh and unlistenable. Much like Wozzeck, the singing also needs to be just on the right side of unrestrained. It doesn't do the listener or the singer any favours to push the madness too far. The playing of the role of Jakob Lenz is of course all-important, and Georg Nigl maintains the intensity throughout while having to act in some very unpleasant positions. Henry Waddington's Oberlin is also well sung, with John Graham-Hall bringing equal intensity as Lenz's increasingly exasperated friend, Kaufmann.

Links: La Monnaie