In the cosy confines of a packed Hampstead Theatre ENO’s English adaptation of Jacob Lenz produced an exciting, entertaining and emotionally draining 70 minutes of opera. Premiered in 1979 this is Rihm’s account of Sturm und Drang writer Jakob Lenz’s descent into madness. Friends with Goethe, Lenz was part of the romantic ‘set’ whose decline into madness is documented in Georg Büchner’s novella Lenz. The opera depicts his stay in a mountain retreat where his hallucinations, fantasies and the voices he hears lead him to attempt suicide no fewer than three times. Oberlin (the pastor who puts him up, or at least puts up with him) tries to provide stability and comfort whilst Kaufmann (Lenz’s friend and fellow writer) tries to take Lenz home to his family – all to no avail. Eventually they despair of Lenz and, unable to help, they simply leave.

Immediately striking is the compact staging which uses the space cleverly but is perhaps a little fussy. From the lake that covers the stage sprouts five-foot reeds and emerging centre stage is an exploded puritan chapel, the front wall of which juts out into the air to serve practically as a raised stage and metaphorically as a precipice to the murky reed beds below – the setting for Lenz’s most extreme behaviour.

Sam Brown’s production is desperate to make the potentially confusing narrative clear to the audience. Amongst many devices, he uses movement between areas of the set to illustrate Lenz’s increasing decline into insanity. At times this approach is a little heavy handed; using an actress to play-out his hallucinations of Brion feels a little clumsy but Brown’s approach, centred on clarity, allows the audience to focus on the dense score and not have to battle with the plot.

Overall it is a well-wrought and stylish production with only a few moments that threaten becoming naff or cliché – Lenz sitting atop the raised platform, smoke machine on full blast clearly setting Lenz as Caspar David Friedrich’s ultimate romantic figure Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is probably the closest this production comes to overdoing it.

The score itself is fascinating; written for an unusual ensemble focusing on bass instruments (including three cellos, contrabassoon, bass clarinet and trombone,) it creates a decidedly murky soundworld that reflects Lenz’s confusion about his deteriorating mental state. This fog is penetrated only by sharp harpsichord interjections that stamp out any developing lyricism; an incongruous sound expressing Lenz’s out-of-kilter relationship with the world. In this way the music directly illustrates the action, avoiding comment – just one feature of many that makes clear that this a story exclusively from the point of view of its protagonist. Bearing this in mind, Lenz is a huge role, comparable to Maxwell-Davies’ Mad King in endurance and commitment if not quite in terms of vocal-chord shredding. Andrew Shore’s performance as Lenz is outstanding. Apart from dealing with the trials of getting wet every five minutes (he ends up completely submerged in water no fewer than three times) musically, Shore gives a sensitive and secure performance. That he is able to find his notes at all from an accompaniment that gives very little help is impressive but the emotional range of Lenz shows off Shore’s versatile voice and deft interpretation. From belting out the final reiterations of “logical” to employing a beautiful and fragile falsetto that conveys Lenz both as a pitiful character and shows a scary, sinister depth to his mental deterioration – Shore presents a complex and sympathetic character. Jonathan Best is impressive as Oberlin, the pastor, a stoic yet caring character struggling, though ultimately failing, to help Lenz. Richard Roberts as Kaufmann, Lenz’s friend, is absurd and provides a little light relief in his foppish antics as he is seen through Lenz' eyes. Their exchanges are a highlight of the piece, giving us an insight into Lenz’s philosophy of art as he chastises Kaufmann’s writing. Kaufmann’s character is essentially a symbol for art without substance which Lenz consistently fought whilst promoting a realistic, naturalistic aesthetic.

Rihm’s music may be considered difficult but the language fits the narrative and he quickly asserts a viable soundworld for the drama. That Rihm wrote Jakob Lenz when he was only twenty-five is impressive as this opera is a tour de force. 2012 has already seen a sharp increase in performances of Rihm’s work in honour of his 60th birthday celebrations and I recommend audiences use this opportunity to see the show.