Moses und Aron
Don't miss this rare chance to listen to Schoenberg's unfinished opera, says Rebecca Franks
Lost in the backroads of Cardiff docks on the way to the Wales Millennium Centre and sent off course into a bewildering thicket of warehouses and dead ends by online map directions, I had a moment where I thought I wouldn’t make it for the start of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. And it would have been a shame to miss a note of this rare staging; this opera was last seen in the UK in Peter Hall’s production in 1965.
But I made it for curtain up. Although curtain up turned out to be before the orchestra had tuned: John Tomlinson standing alone in a characterless European-looking lectern-filled conference room, bright white light coming through a gauzed window at the back of the stage. Deep in thought, he cut a lonely figure. Poor old Moses. He alone believes in a new, invisible god and he has the tough task of convincing the cynical masses of the power of his knowledge, made even tougher by his inability to harness the power of the word to do so, his inability or unwillingess to speak the people's language. Schoenberg's opera tackles the nature of faith and a biblical story of the Jews, but the composer's own autobiography, the preacher of 12-tone music to tonality and melody-loving audiences, has clearly found its way in as well.
Tomlinson portrayed Moses as a dazed lost soul, shuffling and hunched over, wearing a suit that had seen better days; a man going on a spiritual journey out of step with the people around him. His outer vulnerability disappeared as soon as he opened his mouth: utterly clear in every word of the verbose German libretto and in complete command of Schoenberg's sprechgesang, his authoritative bass voice stole the limelight. Tenor Rainer Trost, as Aron, was a lighter counterpart, alert in voice, and plausible in his portrayal of the persuasive-talking brother. The conduit for Moses’s message, Aron wore a grey hoodie and khaki combats that blended in with the motley collection of tracksuits and shapeless garments worn by the people (the Israelites, who will be led out of Egypt by Moses).
In Act II, Moses heads off into the wilderness for 40 days and Aron is left to placate this discontent crew. They wish to be free, but paradoxically they want to know what god they will next be serving, and need constant reassurance of what they can’t see. Aron decides to give them an image of their wishes: the golden calf. Between acts, the stage has been reset to turn the conference hall into a cinema, with a film representing the golden calf. Only, we don't see the film. On-stage audience faces the auditorium audience. We have to imagine the screen and what it's showing. It's an apt device in a opera about belief: we believe the audience is watching a film from how they react, not because we can see the thing itself.
It was one of the more successful moments in a staging which raised questions about whether this is a piece that even needs the visual trappings of opera. A three-act opera, of which the music only exists for two, Moses und Aron began life as an oratorio. Its superb choral writing was, said Welsh National Opera’s artistic director David Pountney, one of the compelling reasons for taking on this phenomenal 12-tone challenge. And the WNO chorus was on thrilling form. The 'crowd' took on its own life, as one as it questioned, shouted, recoiled and laughed. Their singing made a visceral, even at times terrifying, impact. And they were matched in the pit by the WNO orchestra, who brought out the carefully chosen timbres in the sparser moments of the score, and negotiated the denser orchestral writing with ease under the assured baton of Lothar Koenigs.
But shorn of even the theatrical miracles – instead of a staff turning to a snake, a book was passed round; there was no burning bush; no golden calf – in this 11-year-old Stuttgart Opera production, directed by Jossi Wieler and Serge Morabito – the piece's dramatic identity seemed up in the air. I couldn’t work out what the set added, besides the vaguely political atmosphere, and wondered whether a semi-staging, like that of Bach’s St Matthew Passion by Peter Sellars, or Handel’s Messiah by Tom Morris, might not have been more effective.
Yet, this is one of the great incomplete operas of the 20th century, up there with Berg's Lulu, which David Poutney staged to great acclaim last year. The impressive achievements of this production shouldn't be underestimated, and the results demand to be heard. As those intense violins keened their single note at the end of Act II, Moses stood alone on stage once again. This time, though, he was in darkness. The light of god had gone out. There was no more music to be played. Schoenberg insisted he would finish it one day, but I wonder if its incompleteness is a strength, the form matching the content, leaving a great unanswered question.
Photo credit: Bill Cooper