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The Aix-en-Provence Festival is in its 71st season whichshows admirable longevity and it has a new artistic director, Pierre Audi, whichpromises change and renewal. Audi has scheduled six operas for the season mostof them never seen at the Festival in Aix before.

One of the new productions is Jakob Lenz, a one-actchamber opera composed by Wolfgang Rihm on a libretto by Michael Fröhling whichpremiered in Hamburg in 1979. It has been produced in cities across Europe but ithas made only a couple of tentative steps in the United States with productionsat the Julliard Theater in New York and in Bloomington. I can find nothingabout it being produced in Canada.

The opera is based on a novella by Georg Buchner, the man who providedthe material for the more famous Wozzeck. It tells the story ofthe poet Lenz (Georg Nigl) who has serious emotional and mental issues (probablyschizophrenia) not the least of which his mourning for his love Friederike. Heroams the mountains, hears voices and ends up with his friend Pastor Oberlin(Wolfgang Bankl).

The closely written and intense novella which deals largely withinternal turmoil would appear to be almost impossible to transfer into alibretto but Fröhling has managed to do it. It may be worth noting that Lenz,Oberlin and Kaufman are historical figures.

He stays with Oberlin for a while but his emotional turmoil, the voicesthat he hears and the images of Friederike that haunt him drive him back to themountains. He hears the voices again and despairs of finding Friederike.

Their friend Kaufman (John Daszak) joins them. He is a friend of both men,but Lenz’s mental illness makes it impossible for them to deal with him andthey finally put him in a straitjacket, tie him up to a bed and leave him.

The emotional and even intellectual breadth of the opera takes yourbreath away and the performance of Austrian baritone Nigl is simply heroic.Austrian bass-baritone Bankl as Oberlin and British Tenor John Daszak giveimpressive performances though the demands on them are not as strenuous.

The opera has 2 sopranos (Josefin Feiler and Olga Heikkila), two altos (CamilleMerckx and Beth Taylor) and two basses (Dominic Grosse and Eric Ander). Theyprovide the eerie atmosphere and stamp the mental hell in which Lenz agonizes.

The music is modern, dissonant, sometimes jarring, sometimes cacophonousand at times harmonious. It represents the violent emotional tempests that Lenzis going through as he hears his voices, jumps into pools of water (indicated onlymetaphorically in this production), tries to revive a young girl who he thinksis Friderike and bears a cross in unmistakable emulation of the suffering ofJesus. It is heavy-duty stuff.

It is a dark opera done in modern dress. The stage décor by MartinZehetgruber represents metaphorically and economically the rocky mountains,Oberlin’s residence and the more bizarre states of mind of the half-naked andChrist-like Lenz. He is seen wedged on what looks like a shelf and in positionsof pain as he wrestles with his voices, God and his own dementia.

Director Andrea Breth handles the intense and overwrought material witha skillful hand as she takes us through the complexities of the plot in an hourand a quarter with no intermission. 

Ingo Metzmacher conducts the Ensemble Modern orchestra through thepermutations of what sounds like a very difficult score.


Jakob Lenz by Wolfgang Rihm is being performedthree times in reprise of the 2014 Stuttgart Staatsoper production. On July 5,8 and 12, 2019 at the Grand Théâtre deProvence, Aix-en-Provence, France.

July 12, 2019

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