Customer Reviews: Moses and Aaron
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on May 19, 2012
Arnold Schoenberg admitted that his stage direction was unrealizable and gave up any hope of seeing the opera staged. After all, where are we going to find an illusionist-tenor who can perform three biblical miracles on stage? How about staging Four Naked Virgins copulating with the Golden Calf? Even though I generally prefer opera staged instead of filmed, in this case the film version at least has a legitimate claim as a viable alternative. This alternative is here brilliantly realized by the legendary filmmaking duo Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet.

Anyone who knows anything about this duo's films will notice their signature characteristics here: frequent long and immobile shots, rigid and "geometric" camera movements, rigorous and intellectual style etc.. This is not a film for entertainment, nor was it intended to be. For example, even the orgy scene is shot from a certain emotional distance, composed with stylized movements and frames. This austere approach works well for me, and I suspect for Arnold Schoenberg as well since he never meant for this opera to be anything but uncompromising and soul-searching piece of "high art" (instead of a stimulant of senses). Note that this film includes (part of) unfinished Act III, in the form of dialogues between Moses and Aron without music. (*1)

The austere video is matched by the austere musical performance, here conducted by Michael Gielen (Schoenberg's son-in-law) with Chor und Sinfonieorchester des Österreichischen Rundfunks (ORF). At times, the chorus sounds a bit underrehearsed, but only slightly. Both Günter Reich's strong Moses and Louis Devos's eloquent Aron are superb. Even though the performance is not as sharp-edged and penetrating as in Pierre Boulez's 1975 recording or as intense and hot-blooded as in Georg Solti's 1984 account, it is good on its own terms. The only real downside of this release is the sound track. This is a filmed opera, and the music is at least as important as the video. Unfortunately here the sound track is encoded in the inferior Dolby Digital format. The full sonic impact is thus partially lost. I hope some days we will be given another release which has high-fidelity sound tracks, ones that match at least the CD recording of this performance. -- Are there anyone listening in the New Yorker Films/Video? Criterion Collection? (This film was produced by Janus-Film und Fernsehen.)

Currently 3 versions of this opera are available in DVD. Besides this film version, there are videos from Vienna 2006 production and Ruhrtriennale 2009 production. This film version is by far more gripping for me.(*2) I have owned a bootleg version of this film for many years and only recently discovered this New Yorker Film Dec 2011 release. Indeed, I was not fortunate enough to have seen a live production of this masterpiece on stage, so this film was my introduction to the visual aspect of this opera, before the appearance of the Vienna production many years later.

And by the way, this DVD film is "PITCH PERFECT", at least to this reviewer who does not possess the absolute pitch and is away from his piano. If other releases inadvertently raised the pitch by a 4th, it is not present here.(*3) It is unconscientious to give this DVD release one-star rating, as in another review, based on another release of the film. (That prompted me to write this review.)

Contents: This New Yorker Films 2011 release comes with a single DVD in DVD-9 (dual-layer) format. The DVD contains 107 minutes of the main film and a 16-min short film "Einleitung zu Arnold Schoenbergs Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene" ("Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene"), by Straub and Huillet (with Straschek and Nestler). The video quality is good enough for a 1973 film, but could certainly be better. The single sound track is encoded in the compressed (mono-sounding) Dolby Digital format. The subtitles are available only in English, even though the backcover claims to include the German subtitles. Additionally, the package comes with a 40-page booklet containing full libretto in German and English, as well as 2 essays by Michael Gallope and Allen Shawn (in English only).

Anyone interested in Schoenberg's music, or in Straub--Huillet's films, should not miss this DVD. Highly recommended.

(*1) Schoenberg did not live to see the opera finished or staged. He applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete the scores, but was rejected. I wonder who sit in the panel of referees....

(*2) Among the 2 staged opera productions, my preference goes to the Vienna production.

(*3) I have no doubt that the warning from another reviewer (who by implication possesses the absolute pitch) is justified. However, I have yet to figure out a way to raise the pitch by a (perfect) 4th without making the film eerily unnatural. For example, to raise the pitch by a perfect 4th by speeding up the playback, one has to increase the speed by 33%! Neither this version, nor my previous bootleg version, has this problem as far as I tell/remember.
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on February 4, 2015
You either love this sort of production or you hate it. I loved it although it is very austere, 'spare' it what you will. But it's attraction is that it focuses everything on the physical setting and, most of all, the wonderful music.
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on March 8, 2009
I had an opportunity to view this film of Schoenberg's elusive and problematic opera on a theatre screen way back in the late 1970s. As an undergrad music student, I took it upon myself to attend the Art Institute of Chicagos series of opera on film, and this was one of the offerings. Unfamiliar with both the opera and its music, I recall this as being an alien experience, one that would require a second hearing/viewing. The recording used as the soundtrack was released on records/CDs (on Phillips) and I was able to better acquaint myself with Schoenberg's score. My memory of the film is less acute, but I remember the visual approach as minimalist, timeless in a Pasolini-type mode, and with very little movement, perhaps the better to call more attention to the complicated score rather than opulent visuals (the director could have gone "crazy" in depicting the golden calf orgy, but that is avoided). This is usually NOT the approach of opera on film (rather than a filmed staged performance). Many times the singers/performers stand camera side, or front and center and deliver their lines. Interestingly the costumes/decors are biblical-epic realistic. Unliked staged versions of the opera, the film resolves Schoenberg's unfinished final scene of the opera by having the text spoken, which gives the film an anticlimatic feel after the violent/graphic music of the orgy. It's noted that this film has been held up for release as its producer, New York Films, has gone out of business. I hope that another enterprising company might pick up the release of this film on DVD. Kultur? Arthaus? Anyone?
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on February 25, 2009
I hope that this DVD edition might solve a problem that haunts every single presentation of this movie: it is pitched almost a 4th above of the original opera pitch!
Even for listeners with no perfect pitch, the experience of G. Reich voice sounding like a tenor would be a frustrating one!
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