The poet Jakob Lenz (1751-1792) flashed like a shooting-star through the literary firmament, notable less for his output that for his bewitching personal charisma.
Pursued by inner and outer demons since childhood – his pastor father had been a ferocious disciplinarian – he became paranoid and suicidal, and was eventually found dead in the street. We know about him now because his visionary play Die Soldaten was turned into an opera by Bernd-Alois Zimmerman; because the revolutionary playwright Georg Buchner wrote a celebrated novella about Lenz’s life; and because in 1978 Wolfgang Rihm turned that novella into a chamber opera.
Thus it was that English National Opera and the Hampstead Theatre came to stage it in the latter’s intimate theatre-in-the-round, with the young director Sam Brown at the helm. Its challenge is considerable, because it focuses on just one short episode in Lenz’s life. In this, distraught at his rejection by his literary friends and pursued by inner voices, he jumps despairingly into a river, and is fished out by a kindly pastor who tries to heal his sick mind. The attempt fails and, after multiple hallucinations and more jumps into the river, Lenz is finally clamped in a straitjacket, endlessly repeating the word ‘Konsequent’. Working in close collaboration with baritone Andrew Shore - who sings the hugely demanding title role – Brown has devised interesting ways of fleshing out the opera’s thirteen scenes by suggesting a continual to-and-fro between reality and the world of a paranoid imagination. Annemarie Woods has designed an exquisite little riverside scene – all reeds and muddy water – and peopled it with figures who seem to have stepped straight out of an 18th century oil painting.
There is much to like in what results. Shore’s heroic performance is ably complemented by those of Suzy Cooper, Richard Roberts and Jonathan Best; the chorus of ‘voices’ and children is artfully deployed; under Alex Ingram’s direction, Rihm’s score comes to life with remarkable vividness. But that is all there is to it: Lenz starts off mad and stays mad, period. There is no narrative, no psychological surprise, no dramatic tension of any kind; just wall-to-wall hysteria. I stopped bothering to make out the words, and instead savoured the images - and the colours and textures emanating from the pit.