Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron at last returned to London. The Royal Opera House in fact gave the British premiere of the opera, in 1965. In the present philistine artistic climate, would they dare value art over stupidity? We need the values of Moses und Aron more than ever. Thank goodness ROH has sponsored the Welsh National Opera production, which itself dates from 2003. At least we in London get a chance to experience the opera live. House co-operations like this are a boon.
John Tomlinson sang Moses in the Met production eleven years ago. Moses, as the text tells us, is a man who doesn't express himself in words, so Tomlinson's powerful presence creates the right impact. Rainer Trost sang Aron, catching the true Sprechstimme cadences well. The opera is a dialectic between Moses and Aron, but the choruses provide ballast and background. Their music is wonderful. Sometimes they represent the voice of god, sometimes the voice of the people. I would have liked sharper, tighter diction but for non-German speakers this was good enough. Good enough playing, with the WNO orchestra conducted by Lothar Koenigs. Although I hate it when people wail of any performance "It's not like the recording" in this case we have such a choice of outstanding recordings that if we compared like for like, this performance won't come near the top. But never mind. Just getting a chance to engage with Moses und Aron is a privilege.
Please read Mark Berry's review of Schoenberg Moses und Aron in Opera Today. It's the most detailed of all.
The original Stuttgart production looks a little dated now, but it's perfectly acceptable. Although the story comes from The Book of Exodus, when Schoenberg was writing in 1932 he may have been intuiting another kind of exodus. Moses believes in ideals that can't easily be put into words. Aron is his interpreter, much in the way a performer interprets what a composer sets onto paper. No need for tablets made of stone. Pocket scores will suffice. And even these are meaningless unless the people engage with the content therein. But will the people care, or understand? Will they prefer cheap thrills and easy answers? Yet, as Moses says, "Ich darf, und ich muss". He cannot compromise or lose his integrity.
There's plenty of nudity and sex in the libretto, but not in the production. The historical-reality crowd might prefer that, but the original directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito,adhere to the spirit of that which cannot be expressed in direct images. The People sit in what looks like a cinema, facing the audience in the auditorium, "watching" the golden calf in their imaginations, having vaguely impersonal orgies when they think they cant be observed. Much better this than gaudy special effects to distract from the moral power of the opera and the music. Indeed, the staging allows us to concentrate on the inner workings of the music. The naked women emerge vocally from the sprawl in the "theatre", their voices ringing out from the throng. So damn what if they're wearing anonymous clothes. Anyone with ears can pick them out clearly. Moses und Aron is as much an opera about music as it is about faith.
The god of the Hebrews was austere, so holy that his name could not be spoken, whose presence could not be depicted in crass graven images. When Verdi Nabucco was staged last year at the Royal Opera House (read more here) some people went nuts because there wasn't enough gold and decoration. Surely such people must realize that the Hebrews chose the God of Moses, and not the graven images of Babylon?