RIHM Jakob Lenz (Ollu)
‘I can’t bear it any more’, cries the troubled protagonist of Wolfgang Rihm’s chamber opera from 1979, and we’re barely a minute in. Life doesn’t get any easier for this model victim-hero of the Sturm und Drang movement. During the next hour and a quarter he receives lodging from Pastor Oberlin and advice from Kaufmann, a possessive friend. All to no avail: the voices in his head win out. Things get very messy (this is not a piece for weak stomachs).
Faithful as Andrea Breth is to this claustrophobic tale of gloom, her staging lends both dignity to the poet’s plight and deserved lightness of being to Rihm’s setting of Büchner’s novella. Previous stagings – there have been many, though only two in the UK – have not always resisted the temptation to present Lenz as an archetype of madness, a Wozzeck in poet’s clothing, from the off.
Once given more than underpants to wear in the fourth of the opera’s 13 brief scenes, Georg Nigl presents a rounded and intensely sympathetic portrait of Lenz, always in dialogue not only with his two companions but with himself, his one-time lover Friederike and Rihm’s time-travelling musical textures. Through them we shuttle without pastiche between the 18th-century world of the real-life Lenz, the early 19th of Schumann and Weber on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the early 20th of Expressionist Schoenberg and the late 20th of the young Rihm.
Directed with assurance by Franck Ollu, the 12-strong band includes a harpsichord and three cellos but no upper strings. Chorale melodies are reserved for moments of climatic pathos, but at 24 Rihm was no mere epigone of Berg and Zimmermann: Jakob Lenz is a young man’s opera, bold, angry and convinced of its own force, no less the work of a disturbingly ingenious mind than Adès’s Powder Her Face. Even were the 1984 Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recording made commercially available, it would not present serious competition to the outstanding vocal and dramatic performances of Nigl, Henry Waddington and John Graham-Hall.