Marvellous Moses

26 Jul

Not many of my friends seemed that envious of me going to see Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at the Royal Opera House on July 25th. That puts it mildly. The word Schoenberg seems to be sufficient to cause people to grimace and run a mile even though they have never knowingly heard a note of his music and would be hard pressed to name anything he had written. It’s rather like the effect the name Karl Marx has on people who haven’t seen a copy of the Communist Manifesto, let alone any of his serious work.

I left the evening wishing that people would give it a try. I think that if I were going to suggest somewhere to begin, I’d start with the chorus that begins Act II “Wo ist Moses?” with it’s whispered start, differing dynamics and tempi. It’s hard to think of that as “difficult” music and it’s music that draws you in to the piece. I think I’d then just keep them going and see how far they got. I’m sure they’d make it to the end of Act II and then think about hearing some of Act I. It’s not music that you have to try to understand or need a degree in music to get anything out of: it’s visceral and hugely exciting with real beauty as well. It makes me want to get to know more of his music. This isn’t music that anyone need feel apologetic about.

There are two problems with the opera, however. The first, I think, is the text – which is dense, difficult to follow, even with surtitles and which is intensely cerebral. It’s important but it needs very sensitive staging. You don’t really get much emotion until the end of the second Act and you tend to feel that the conflict between Moses and Aron doesn’t really come across well and this leads to the fact that it’s unfinished. The end of the second act leaves you hungry for more.

Everyone has praised that outstanding musical performance by the WNO chorus and orchestra. I don’t think I’ve heard any chorus, anywhere, sing music of this complexity so well, so accurately and with such intensity. Lothar Koenigs conducted and achieved complete clarity and considerable beauty from the orchestra. It was alert and really beautiful in its own right. We had John Tomlinson, excellent, of course, as Moses and Rainer Trost, a beautiful voice singing easily, fluently and beautifully as Aron. He hadn’t sung at the first night and so reviewers didn’t mention him, but this was a starry, superbly acted and effortlessly sung performance. Nobody seemed aware that this music is difficult and everybody performed it wonderfully.

The problem, for me, lay in the production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. It’s set in a Parliament Chamber (Act I) and an empty cinema (Act II). The orgy is spent with people looking at a film apparently projected into the auditorium and some low level, rather uncomfortable-looking fumbling. It failed to project the position of the Israelites in a way that meant anything or to help me understand what the opera was about. It may well have worked better in Stuttgart with an audience able directly to understand the words. Here the mind wandered quite a lot, you longed for some of the stage effects that Schoenberg envisaged and you wondered why they hadn’t just done in concert. I felt that, with such importance placed on debate and the words that it needed to be sung in English so that we could directly understand what was going on. Moving from stage to surtitles all the time was really too difficult.

It may be that this piece is impossible to stage and that it’s just too heavy ever to work as more than a connoisseur’s piece but I left this wanting to see another staging and wanting to get to know the piece better. It had better not be another 48 years before the next London staging.

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