Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, May 2014Posted on 25 May 2014
This extraordinary opera by Arnold Schoenberg remained unfinished at his death in 1951, though he wrote the music for the first two acts already in the period 1930–32. The incompleteness is emphasised by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s WNO production (imported from Stuttgart), by beginning and ending both acts without clear boundaries. At the start of each we see a silent stage with auditorium lights still on and the orchestra warming up, the ending being equally ill-defined.
Disconcerting, yet so is the theme of the opera, the conflict between idea and image, between meta-human concepts and living reality, between Moses and Aaron. And involved in this complex contrast is the huge chorus that first appears, nervously and insistently, into the large hall where Moses has hitherto been alone with Aaron in the background. The tiered rows of seats and long desks, facing lectern and high-backed chairs at the front, could be a debating chamber or, after the front chairs are removed at the end of Act I, a student lecture theatre.
Here, Moses, with his bare feet, thick glasses, loosely fitting suit and open necked shirt, is the man with the vision, the answers, but unable to express them to the undignified rabble. Such is Aaron’s work, and in Act II he shows the people a movie, invisible to us. The images they see inspire physical aggression and sexual licentiousness, though this scene of the golden calf is perhaps the least satisfactory in the production. The people need images rather than abstract notions, embodied here in a book that plays the role of both Moses’ staff and his tablets of the law, and when Aaron points out that it too is a mere image, rather than the whole idea, Moses tears it up, and the opera ends with his despair.
John Tomlinson’s portrayal of Moses is a wonder to behold. Understated, yet ineffably powerful, I am reminded of his recent Minotaur at Covent Garden, and he was well-matched by the Aaron of Mark Le Brocq, replacing Rainer Trost at very short notice on the first night, due to a throat infection. Yet this is very much a choral opera and the WNO chorus were superb as usual, as were the soloists, particularly Daniel Grice. Conducting by music director Lothar Koenigs fully brought out the power of Schoenberg’s vision, and I found it inspirational.
In 1933, the year after Schoenberg completed Act II, Europe changed drastically. He went into exile, reconverted to Judaism and never wrote the music for his original Act III duet between Moses and Aaron, leaving us with just two extraordinary acts. Yet they are enough, and these performances are not to be missed on any account, nor is the excellent essay by Gavin Plumley in the programme.
Performances continue in Cardiff at the Wales Millennium Centre on May 30 and June 7, at the Birmingham Hippodrome on June 18, and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on July 25, 26 — for details click here.