Philippe Jordan’s Moses und Aronan Astonishing Musical Achievement


FranceFrance Schoenberg, Moses und Aron: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris, Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine Children’s Choir of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus masters: José Luis Basso and Alessandro di Stefano) / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 20.10.2015 (MB)

Pic credit Bernd Uhlig
Pic credit Bernd Uhlig

Moses – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Aron – John Graham-Hall
Young Maiden – Julie Davies
Sick Woman – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Young Man – Nicky Spence
Naked Youth – Michael Pflumm
Man – Chae Wook Lim
Another Man, Ephraimite – Christopher Purves
Priest – Ralf Lukas
Four Naked Virgins – Julie Davies, Maren Favela, Valentina Kutzarova, Elena uvorova
Three Elders – Shin Jae Kim, Olivier Ayault, Jian-Hong ZhaoSix Solo Voices – Béatrice Malleret, Isabelle Wnorowska-Pluchart, Marie-Cécile Chevassus, John Bernard, Chae Wook Lim, Julien Joguet


Romeo Castellucci (director, designs, lighting)
Cindy van Acker (choreography)
Silvia Costa (artistic collaboration)
Piersandra di Matteo, Christian Longchamp (dramaturgy)


Moses und Aron remains a ‘special’ work, not unlike Parsifal. There are good reasons for that; as a greatly distinguished exponent of both dramas, Pierre Boulez, pointed out when at work on Parsifal at Bayreuth, Wagner was quite right to loath ‘opera houses … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: ‘One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!’ Such was not merely an offence to the composer’s amour propre, but testament to Wagner’s works’ incompatibility with existing theatrical conventions and norms. Likewise what, Parsifal included, must surely be the most theological of all operas, Schoenberg’s unfinished, most likely unfinishable, masterpiece. There are bad reasons too, though. I have lost count of the times I have heard claims that Schoenberg is ‘box office poison’, or some other such drivel. I could not see an empty seat in the vast Bastille amphitheatre; likewise, the Royal Opera House was full, not a seat remaining, for Welsh National Opera’s two performances in London last year. Stockhausen’s Mittwoch in Birmingham sold out even more quickly.

The allegedly ‘realistic’ guardians of the ‘possible’, Fafner-like protectors of the strangely uncompelling operatic repertoire and its practices, are no more to be trusted than their political counterparts, still screaming ‘unelectable’ at Jeremy Corbyn, long after his election has procured the Labour Party more new members than the Conservative Party has existing ones. If you do not want to stage Schoenberg or Stockhausen; if you do not want Corbyn to lead your (or someone else’s party), fine; give your reasons for doing so. Such disingenuousness might have fooled the crowd, easily swayed as Schoenberg’s Children of Israel show, for a while. No longer. Sometimes the impossible is fruitfully impossible, as the apophatic theology of Moses suggests. Most of the time, it is simply the weapon of those in power.

The only way to perform such works is, of course, to do them proud. There could be no gainsaying the achievement of the Opéra national de Paris in this case: a fitting achievement in its own right, but also a clear statement of intent from its new leadership under Stéphane Lissner. Signs matter, as Aron would counsel; so too does Moses’ Idea. Both are present here, in Romeo Castelucci’s thoughtful production, which opens up mental possibilities rather than closing them down. (Presumably, that is what, as usual, the fascist booing contingent objected to; if they do not wish to be made to think, Schoenberg might not be for them.)

The first act takes place in front of and, mostly, behind a white curtain, the characters – if we may call them that: somehow it does not quite seem the right word – in white too, although Moses is sometimes black. (Who is he? Or, as the Chorus will ask, where is Moses? Is he the Moses we know from the Bible, Freud’s putative non-Jewish Moses, an all-purpose founding father/Lycurgus, a dictator? How mutually exclusive are those identities?) Moses hears the Voice of the opening, prior to language (prior even to the nonsense language of the Rhinemaidens, for this is the Almighty Himself) and receives his inspiration (as an artist) or his command (as a politico-religious leader) in the clearer light of what we might call day, even if it be darker – one of many dialectics at work here – than the all-too-light world of obscurity, which may or may not be its opposite, or negation. The wilderness of the first act, the strange, flock-like behaviour of the Israelites (sheep, of course, are white, or black…) is an object of dim, perhaps in more than one sense, perception by us – and, one suspects, by those participating too. The commands God issues via Moses – if indeed Moses has not interpreted them himself – are, we should remember, unpresentable, incomprehensible, negatively defined; which is why it seems that we might need Aron in the first place. Words appear in front of the curtain. Prohibitions? Some of them, doubtless. Others have more of an unclear status, just like most of what is written in, say, Leviticus, for most of us. To begin with, we can ‘process’ them, even if we cannot understand quite why they are there, or how we should act upon them. Eventually, we can take in but a few, if any, so quickly do they come and go: ‘information overload’.

Red seeps in briefly, via the mysterious, mystifying technology – God at work, or the necessary curse of modern communication and its theory? – that follows upon the initially comprehensible conjuring trick of Aron’s rod. As the Book of Numbers has it, ‘And it shall come to pass, that the man’s rod, whom I shall choose, shall blossom.’ But we still have to trust both God, Moses, Aron, and probably their popular reception for that; should we? After all, there is not a single agent, perhaps with the exception of the Divinity – although, as with Kant, how can we know? – which does not err, which does not mislead. (Yes, Moses, that includes you.) Red is blood, Aron tells us, and the technology and – still white – costumes suggest something medical. But is this another conjuring trick? Is it perhaps even the Red Sea, a reminder – to what end? – of Pharoah and the Egypt in which many might place prince Moses himself?

Black enters. Or rather re-enters, for it had initially appeared as tape reel from which Moses had initially heard the Voice. Recording is a difficult business in itself; what is it we hear when we hear, say, Boulez conducting Moses und Aron at home? Philosophical questions, perhaps unanswerable, yet which cannot go unasked, continue to present themselves. Commandments, as any reader of the Pentateuch will tell us, issue thick and fast, perhaps too thick and fast. The thickness and the fastness confuse, capture, even enslave: tape here is black rather than red. Its sacerdotal quality is confirmed by its colouristic alliance – Holy Alliance? mésalliance? false friend? Again, how do we know? The epistemological challenge of Moses und Aron… – with the black which increasingly invades the stage and all but Moses in the second act, the obscuring curtain now vanished, drama as more conventionally understood to the fore. Whatever the tar-like liquid might be to Castellucci’s painterly imagination, and sometimes paint is just paint, even oil is just oil, its emergence from and apparent subsidence into, religious marking, from an undeniable achievement, however uneasy, of instrumental reason, marks an Adornian negative dialectic it would be willful to ignore.

The totemic object of worship – is it Aron, in fetishistic black, ‘fetish’ both old and new in our understanding? Or is it the (real) bull, apparently having undergone several weeks of dodecaphonic training prior to appearing on stage, and mysteriously disappearing from stage? – is bound to fail; we know that. And yet, we cannot write off – as Moses would do in anger with the words inscribed upon his tablets? – what has happened during Moses’ absence. Nor should we. Collapse suggests a Wizard of Oz, or a new lease of life and death for the Feuerbachian psychology of religion so enthusiastically adopted by Wagner, and so ambiguously retained even unto Parsifal. Aron, the people have made this new god; that is what modern politics and communications do; it is what ancient politics and communications did too. The (recorded) word of a one, true God might have triumphed briefly, just as Orpheus might once have tamed whatever and whomever it was he tamed, but the rest will not have gone away. Politics and religion, art too: are they destined, Beckett-like, to end in failure?

The religious rituals we have seen in the meantime, something akin to baptism – the River Jordan come early? – included, seem to have had meaning, but did they perhaps have none at all? Schoenberg and Castelucci continue to answer questions with questions. Not quite Socratic, but not entirely un-Socratic either: perhaps more dialectically Wagnerian? I always smile when I see Schoenberg’s marking of an ‘erotic orgy’. What would an ‘unerotic orgy’ be? A failure? Well, yes, but are both perhaps not failures; what would be success? There is nothing of the crowd-pleasingly ‘erotic’ or, alternatively, of its conservative-crowd-repelling alternative, to what we see on stage; it is restrained, perhaps or perhaps not an acknowledgement of the idolatry of artistic representation. The ritual around the Golden Calf that is not golden seems almost more akin to Parsifal, although I do not of course intend to imply that there is nothing of the erotic to Wagner’s drama. The excess, the twelve-note Meyerbeerian tendencies of the Orgy are countered both scenically and musico-theologically: the row remains, as do the controlling hands of the conductor, the director, and, dare one suggest, I AM.

Is this partial? Of course it is. But so, equally was the saturation in gold – colour, and the lucre of advertising – of Reto Nickler’s production for the Vienna State Opera (available on DVD). Perhaps a production has to be partial; indeed, it must almost certainly be so. Perhaps, as with the work itself, part of the greatness here lies in failure, in the modernistic fragment. Ours is a fractured, fragmented world, which longs all the more for unity, and might sometimes delude itself into believing it has once again found it. Visions of decidedly un-Sinai like, perhaps Alpine mountains appear like a kitschy mirage, inviting the acrobatic attempt at scaling we witness, still more so inviting the failure and collapse we know to be forthcoming. Is the tent-like image remaining a hint at the religion to come, at tabernacles and temples from which the instrumental reason, domination, and murder of the nation will come?

We do not, then, know entirely what is going on, and that is clearly the point, or part of it, or is it? We can certainly tell that what we are seeing is what the director intends to see; even when ‘meaningless’, this is not ‘merely’ arbitrary. Is that subsequent doubt part of the point? And so on, and so forth. If Adorno and Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, charted the domination of instrumental reason since Homer, did Schoenberg and does Castellucci attempt something similar since Moses? Such might indeed be understood to be part of the meaning of Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music. And to hear so stunningly played a performance of the orchestral music furthered that understanding further.

For this was an astonishing musical achievement from Philippe Jordan and the orchestra of the Paris Opéra: on top form, indeed magnificent form. (With the best will in the world, the smaller forces of WNO last summer at Covent Garden could not begin to match it, estimable though their performance was on its own terms.) I am not sure I have heard a conductor stress the individual nature of scenes and their subdivisions so much as Jordan, suggesting something a little closer to the closed forms of Berg in Wozzeck than I had ever contemplated. ‘Right’ or ‘wrong’, it convinced. There was Wagnerian chamber music, which yet had more than a little hint of the allegedly more ‘autonomous’ writing of works such as Schoenberg’s Serenade, op.24 and the Variations for Orchestra, op.31, and even perhaps of Hindemith, certainly of Bachian counterpoint. (Listen to Götterdämmerung from, say, Karajan or Boulez, or look at the score, if you doubt the preponderance of chamber writing in Schoenberg’s great musico-dramatic predecessor.) There were Viennese waltzes, of all degrees of straightness, evoking Mahler, Berg, even the ‘Marzipanmeister’, as Schoenberg once ner of orchestral colour, especially, although not only, in the Golden Calf Scene; the mandolins (Florentino Calvo and Cécile Duvot) registered more strongly with me than I can previously call, again evokindenounced him, Richard Strauss, although not necessarily in his case with fondness. There was all mang Schoenberg’s Serenade, but also Mahler, not least his attempt at religious synthesis in the Eighth Symphony. And it was the opening of the ‘Adagio’ to the Tenth Symphony which inevitably came to mind in the closing unison. What should we make of that? A gateway to another musical world? A recognition of the necessity and yet impossibility of further synthesis? The more committed the performance of Moses, the more negative the way that both opens up and vanishes.

Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Moses was stentorian, his stage and vocal presence seemingly one physical and intellectual whole. Tragically flawed, noble yet with all the dangers increasingly apparent of charismatic leadership, shading into dictatorship, we saw and heard on one level a political parable all-too-familiar to Schoenberg – and to us too, with æsthetic consequences just as important. It was not only Walter Benjamin who warned of the ‘æstheticisation of politics’. And it was certainly not only a danger, however superior the æsthetics might have been, for Schoenberg’s time. Mayer’s diction, as with that of everyone else on stage, was beyond reproach; his pitch, insofar as that were an issue for the notoriously thorny, negatively ‘unanswerable’ question of Sprechstimme, seemed to me pretty impressive too.

That was the case also for John Graham-Hall’s Aron. We think of Graham-Hall as a ‘character’ tenor, a Basilio or a Monastatos, yet his repertoire is far more varied than that, and who would want a ‘non-character’ tenor? (Sadly, many do.) Aron has been portrayed by tenors of many varieties, including bel canto ‘specialists’ – the reality is always more complex – such as Chris Merritt, for Boulez no less, and of course many a Heldentenor. A great strength of Graham-Hall’s performance was his complexity; Aron emerged more as a chameleon than one often sees – or hears. He could adapt, marshal his resources to the situation. Even at the moment of apparent defeat, a Mime-like obsequiousness or infantilism, immediately following upon Moses’ outburst, resolved itself into some of Aron’s initial composure, faith, and/or advocacy.

The power relationship, then, continually shifted, according to circumstances. That was just as much the case for the relationships between the two principal characters and others, whether soloists or the chorus. There was not a weak link, and the nature of the work is such that other soloists do not really stand out; that is not to gainsay their achievement. However, there was a triumph at least on the level of that of the orchestra from the chorus. It is difficult to overstate the task a chorus faces in taking on this immense part, or rather these immense parts. José Luis Basso and his deputy, Alessandro di Stefano, had clearly done their work with a thoroughness one rarely encounters, and which, in the modern opera house, is rarely permitted. So had the singers themselves. They seemed capable of doing whatever they were asked, whether by composer, by conductor, by chorus master, or by director. That, of course, contributed immeasurably to the success of their performance, and to the questions such ‘success’ continues to ask of us. If authority can achieve so much, that is both, as Moses und Aron acknowledges, a cause for celebration and a staging-point to catastrophe.

Mark Berry

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