Tuesday, 17 April 2012


17/4/12, ENO at Hampstead
17/4/12, Hampstead
1 hr 5 mins, no interval. Smoking alert (clay pipe: now there's a first, and with real tobacco, judging by the smell that wafted up to the circle). It was the first night so the Hampstead foyer was heaving with a very different crowd from its normal North London bourgeois, including ENO's new chairman Sir Peter Bazalgette, two former general directors (Dennis Marks and Nicholas Payne), assorted critics and opera buffs.

A bizarre evening: memorable, but for mostly the wrong reasons. How sad that something done with such commitment should prove so utterly unengaging and alienating. But apparently it's a modern classic. This was A's take, emailed within 90 minutes of the curtain:

Well, we are reeling from what can only be described as a tour de force of performance and a health & safety nightmare. Described as a chamber musical for three performers, additional singers and a percussion section, in this production, it certainly is that and more.

Thankfully, it was short (but not short enough, say I). I admit, I didn't do my homework on this (we booked the tickets, obviously in a moment of madness, particularly as we managed to double book ourselves; I blame the Lears' good hosting on the afternoon we did the bookings). The set is an actor/performer's nightmare of health & safety issues: pools of water, some deeper than others but the actors/singers were all sploshing around on stage. I also pity stage management on this show, who will also be doing laundry because of the water, never mind the full-body 'baptisms' and/or jumpings-in which happened at least five times in the space of 80min.

So, there we were, in the 'circle' at Hampstead. They took out several rows of seats in order to accommodate a chamber orchestra. Hampstead made it three-sided seating; I felt very sorry for anyone on the far sides, left & right as they would only have seen performers' backs. The music was squeeky-gate and is an up-date from 1979 when squeeky-gate stuff was in its heyday, I guess. Having said that, the orchestra was wonderful and some of the music was magic.

However, what was on stage...well, we didn't fall asleep because I think we (at least I) wondered where it could possibly go next. There is a scene where part of a church wall, lying flat to begin with, is raised on a hoist (above pools of water), on which is played a duet at a parlous angle for the two performers. And then the female heroine starts running around and jumping in restoration dress. She visibly slipped and nearly lost her wig. He slipped when he attempted to run up the thing again later in the scene. And why Jakob didn't set himself alight when he covered himself and the candle-lit lamp, I do not know.

I didn't bother to buy a programme on this one; our tickets were expensive enough in the first place. Having looked at Hampstead's site, apparently all seats are £45. There are six performances left. Run and buy a ticket (not).
Jakob Lenz really existed: an 18thC poet and friend of Goethe who went mad and sought help from a pioneering psychologist and Lutheran pastor called Oberlin, who told the story to Georg Buchner, who wrote it down. Wolfgang Rihm set it to music in the 1970s. This was its first English-language production in the UK.

The lead was sung by Andrew Shore: we've seen him as Mime and in ENO's Elixir of Love among other things and he's a great actor, let alone singer, but this must have been a challenge. After so many dunkings he'll have pneumonia by the end of the run. There were two other singing parts, for Oberlin (a bass) and a foppish friend of Lenz's (a tenor) plus a small chorus of peasants, two children and two non-speaking, non-singing parts: an elegant woman who might be Lenz's muse or a former lover, and a little girl who is presumably the muse as a child, though one can't be sure: at one point Lenz baptises the little girl in one of the pools; later the woman, in her scanties (presumably the costs of laundering daily her magnificently starched 18thC dress horrified the management), drowns the little girl in the same pool (Lenz tries unsuccessfully to resurrect her... the woman kisses her and she wakes). The elegant woman was played by Suzy Cooper -- last seen in the York panto!

Though the soloists' enunciation was admirably clear, they had to fight the highly percussive and often noisy orchestra and many of the words went west, so one had only a hazy notion of what was going on. The music was deliberately alienating and though it had its moments of calm it was a struggle to listen to. I'm not sure (as so often with modern operas) what it added to a straight dramatisation. It was also frustrating not knowing what was in Rihm's text and what was the director Sam Brown's interpolation. Presumably the mute muse was in the text. And the little girl. But does the text specify the splashy fens of Annemarie Wood's muddy, reedy set? They were, as A says, a potential deathtrap and the cast will be lucky not to sustain a broken leg during the run.

One fundamental problem (not limited to operas in general or this one in particular) is that it's hard to sympathise with someone in the throes of madness if one's not first seen them sane.

From my seat in the circle I had a first-class view of the percussionist who, as so often in modern music, had loads to do (percussionists must love this kind of stuff). He was often more entertaining than the onstage antics.

Overnight reviews here. I especially like Michael Church's summary in the Indie:

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.


No comments:

Post a Comment