United Kingdom Schoenberg, Moses und Aron (Company Premiere): Soloists, Chorus (and Extra Chorus) and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 24.5.2014 (GPu)
Moses – John Tomlinson
Aron – Mark Le Brocq
A Young Maiden/ First Naked Virgin – Elizabeth Atherton
A Youth – Alexander Sprague
Another Man / Ephraimite – Daniel Grice
A Priest – Richard Wiegold
First Elder – Julian Boyce
Second Elder – Laurence Cole
Third Elder – Alastair Moore
Sick Woman / Fourth Naked Virgin – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Naked Youth – Edmond Choo
Second Naked Virgin – Fiona Harrison
Third Naked Virgin – Louise Ratcliffe
Chorus of six solo voices – Fiona Harrison, Amanda Baldwin, Sian Menir, Peter Wilman, Alastair Moore, Laurence Cole
Directors – Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito
Assistant / Revival Director – Jörg Behr
Designer – based on an original design by Anna Viebrock
Lighting Designer – Tim Mitchell
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris
Assistant Conductor / Chorus Master – Philip White
Musical Preparation – Ian Ryan, James Southall, Simon Philippo, Stephen Wood
Moses und Aron can seem an opera without a clear generic context, almost sui generis. Though there is a superficial resemblance in subject matter, there is not much to be gained (save an experience of violent contrast) from any attempt to relate it to its fellow biblical opera Rossini’s Mosè in Egito (scheduled for performance by WNO in the coming Autumn season). It is more profitable to push the Biblical/theological dimension aside for one moment and think about its great rejected, misunderstood prophet, Moses, resisting with alarm the popularisation (and trivialisation) of Aron, in defence of his own austere vision, as having something (more than a little) to say of that other embattled visionary, Schoenberg himself. In seeing the unfinished (necessarily?) opera as, in a sense, about the musician’s art as well as about the question of how God can or cannot be ‘represented’ one finds oneself locating Moses und Aron in the German tradition of musical-operatical self-reflexivity, as embodied in works such as Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Strauss’s Capriccio. Either way, Moses und Aron is primarily an opera of ideas, rather more than an opera of individual emotion.
This production was first staged by Stuttgart Opera, more than 10 years ago. It ruthlessly strips away any Biblical trappings of design, costume or stage setting. No golden calf, no desert or wilderness, no naked virgins (beyond their being named in the cast list), no sacrifice, no dance. Directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito have eschewed theatrical ‘graven images’ with an absoluteness at least as severe as that of Moses himself. Act I is set in a modern hall with raked seating, and with a microphoned lectern at the front. It might be a conference hall, a lecture theatre, even a parliamentary chamber. The same set serves for Act II, where it functions as a kind of (less than luxurious) cinema, with the onstage audience looking out (with a projection behind them pointing out at us) at the audience in the theatre and seeing, one assumes, the modern ‘graven images’ of violent pornography. The seats and stairs of the set also serve as the setting for a pretty decorous ‘orgy’, prompted by the supposed images on the (supposed) screen.
With virtually all stage spectacle gone (and better that than the kind of kitsch often involved in attempts to portray an Old testament ‘atmosphere’ and setting), the listener is free (or perhaps one should say is compelled?) to concentrate on Schoenberg’s inconsistently glorious music and the dense intellectual content of his libretto.
Moses’ direct encounter with God cannot (and he believes should not) be represented in ways which the ‘people’ could easily understand and identify with. That way lies belief in the representation, rather than the ‘reality’ behind and beyond it. Perhaps initially well-intentioned in his desire to communicate his brother’s ideas, Aron soon turns into an exploiter of the vision for personal and political purposes. The corruption of pure religious vision has, of course, many historical (and more than a few contemporary) analogues. Nor is it hard to see how Schoenberg might have found in this ‘myth’ a version of his own situation in contemporary music. It would be difficult, and excessively lengthy, to make any attempt here to explore the ‘theological’ intricacies of Schoenberg’s libretto, though, well-surtitled in both Welsh and English, this production certainly prompted one to think hard about these ideas.
John Tomlinson’s interpretation of the role of Moses was a performance of real bravura. Vocally and musically impressive, this was also dramatically persuasive, whether as the troubled possessor of a divine vision or as the increasingly bewildered and anguished observer of the corruption and perversion of that vision. Even in a rigorously ‘intellectual’ production, Tomlinson’s performance was thoroughly moving. He was well matched, complemented one might say, by Mark Le Brocq’s self-assured Aron, a smooth salesman of an ideology, able to manipulate the crowd with a populist manner that always eludes Moses. If Le Brocq’s Aron was less fully characterised than Tomlinson’s Moses that need not surprise. Astonishingly, Le Brocq had taken over from an unwell Rainer Trost at only a few hours notice. Though Trost’s understudy, Le Brocq had apparently not previously sung the role with the full orchestra. His accomplished – and brave – performance understandably won particularly warm applause from his fellow singers at the curtain call.
No other characters get any kind of development in the opera, and in this production they merely emerged momentarily from the choric crowd and then returned to the chorus. A few attracted particularly favourable notice in the process, notably Elizabeth Atherton and Richard Wiegold. The WNO Chorus, specially expanded for this production, were superb throughout, their excellence the result of months of hard work by the singers and by the company’s outstanding Chorus Master, Stephen Harris. Similarly impressive was the work of the orchestra, conducted by Lothar Koenigs; this is music in which Koenigs seems to be thoroughly at home, his conducting illuminating and articulating the intricacies of Schoenberg’s score with great clarity and sensitivity. Musically, then, there was little or nothing to complain of her, and a great deal to praise.
The production itself raised more mixed feelings. If one says that it took the work’s ideas seriously, that might sound like an unqualifiedly good thing. But insofar as it did so at the cost of pretty well everything that is implicitly theatrical in the libretto, then a major and obvious qualification emerges. It wasn’t a production that obstructed the work produced, but it didn’t support the work as much as it might. This problem was particularly acute in Act II, which was almost unrelievedly static. The quasi-cinematic device, which effectively made the contemporary audience into exemplars of the very ‘corruption’ through images against which Moses is fighting, certainly made a point not without truth in socio-historical terms, but it wasn’t really a point central to the opera as written. My overriding impression was fundamentally mixed – made up of gratitude that I had been given the opportunity to hear this great and neglected opera so well sung and played and of frustration that so poor a case was made for it theatrically.