Germany Schoenberg. The Choir of the Komische Oper Berlin and Vocalconsort Berlin. Robert Hayward (Moses), John Daszak (Aron), Vladimir Jurowski (Musical direction), Barrie Kosky (Staging). Komische Oper Berlin. 19.04.15 (HR)
Arnold Schoenberg composed his opera Moses und Aron in Berlin between 1930 and 1932. It tells the story of the two brothers, Moses and Aron, who lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The opera reflects Schoenberg’s concern with profound questions surrounding Jewish politics and religion. At its heart lies a conflict that is ultimately irreconcilable: how to portray the greatness of God using mere images and words – or, in other words, how to express the inexpressible.
Moses und Aron is deemed the composer’s most comprehensive masterpiece. But it is also considered one of the most difficult operas in the repertoire. On top of its challenging subject matter, Schoenberg’s music can be unrelenting to those unfamiliar with 12-tone music (music without a clear tonal centre). It is highly demanding of its performers too. A central dramatic role is given to the Israelites played by a large choir. The choir not only need to be capable of singing Schoenberg’s challenging 12-tone music, but must be able to act as a unified cohort too.
But Moses und Aron’s numerous difficulties were not the focus of Barrie Kosky’s new staging premiered on Sunday night at the Komische Oper Berlin. With the combined forces of the Choir of the Komische Oper and Vocalconsort Berlin, there was no sign of Schoenberg’s ‘difficult’ score. Rather, it was the drama they were concerned with. Under Kosky’s direction, the choir were incredibly alive, constantly moving and agitated. The breadth of emotions they were capable of was astonishing, which ranged from threatening, fearful, angry, adoring, panicked to demanding. Though the choir was large, all members were equally committed. No one took their vastness as an opportunity to take a back seat.
An inspired idea was giving the choir lifelike dummies during the ‘orgy’ scene in the second act, following the creation of the golden calf for the Israelites to worship. Schoenberg’s stage directions state that this should culminate in human sacrifice, suicide, lust and wholesale destruction. Though the dummies made this descent into chaos less overtly horrific, this was replaced with something altogether creepier. The dummies made their first appearance after the dance of the golden calf, represented by an alluring woman dressed in gold. The singers held the dummies in front of them so that all the audience could see was an unnerving mass of slowly approaching dummies. The message was clear: the Israelites had literally been struck dumb by their attraction to the golden calf.
It was fortunate for Robert Hayward (Moses) that the opera began with him alone on stage. It gave him a chance to establish his character before the hustle and bustle of the choir stole the audience’s attention. His rough voice suited Moses’s resigned suffering expressed through sprechgesang (a method of singing that lies between singing and speaking). Meanwhile, John Daszak (Aron) revelled in being able to sing without restraint, thus providing a rich contrast.
The opera was well supported by the Komische Oper’s orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, indicated by the difficulty in separating the music from the action onstage. The drama, singing and music melded into one. There were moments of stillness, however, where the music reflected on the events that have taken place. The orchestra played feverishly. In being wordless, they perhaps came closest to expressing the inexpressible.
Kosky’s new staging of Moses und Aron was inventive. Using dummies and a real dancing woman to represent the golden calf were both inspired ideas. But thankfully Kosky did not go overboard with any indecipherable symbolism. The opera is already compact with ideas, and adding too much would threaten it with incomprehensibility. Kosky gave space for the choir, the two brothers and Schoenberg’s score to provide the drama. And this was certainly more than enough.