Arnold Schönberg: Moses und Aron [Blu-ray]
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A profound, powerful and yet unfinished opera, Moses und Aron ends with an admission of defeat: ""O word, thou Word that I lack!"", Moses' last cry, is also the last phrase the composer has been able to set to music. Recounting the story of Moses, who has experienced the immensity of God, and of Aron, who tries to speak of it; casting doubt, with dodecaphonism, upon the adequacy of tonal and traditional musical language; Moses und Aron questions the possibility of a True Speech. Following in their wanderings the chidlren of Israel, a stateless people lost in the desert and looking for signs and images, Moses un Aron symbolizes the challenges encountered by a community looking for her own identity, torn between spiritual ideal and material needs. The opera thus reveals, in Romeo Castellucci's spectacular and poetic staging, a tragic divide between what can and cannot be represented, between God and idols, between endlessness and constriction, between the realm of intuition and the realm of language. The Paris Opera Chorus and Orchestra, who, thanks to his musical director Philippe Jordan's work, has pierced all the secrets of Schönberg's audacious score, reveal with grace and accuracy all the emotion contained in this anxious, overwhelming and unforgettable masterpiece.
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The central conflict in Moses und Aron, and between Moses and Aaron, is the difficulty of the representation of the word and mistrust of the image. Consequently Moses leaves it to his brother Aaron to find a way of bringing God's word to the people without resorting to idolatry while he contemplates the "invisible, incommensurable, infinite, eternal, omnipresent, all-powerful" God who has revealed himself in the form of a burning bush. Language and expression to convey the infinite and indefinable without words or the use of image is a difficult concept, and even musical language has baggage associated with it, so Schoenberg would invent a new way of composing music for Moses und Aron in the form of twelve-tone serial music, preaching the new gospel of dodecaphony and giving it its greatest and most convincing expression in this opera.
Representation of the word and mistrust of the image is always going to be at the heart of Castellucci's production, but that still doesn't entirely account for the spectacle that is presented on the stage of the Bastille in Paris. There's little that could be said to be a literal enactment of the stage directions, but Castellucci very much adheres to the intent of the word rather than its literal depiction in untrustworthy images, which is evidently the key concept here. Moses encounters God here not in a burning bush but in a tape recorder unreeling black tape. Moses's staff meanwhile doesn't transform into a snake exactly, but becomes a long revolving technological object of uncertain purpose that converts the water of the Nile into blood. Words, initially from the libretto but later more random, are projected onto the screen.
Practically the whole first half of the production takes place behind a white heavy gauze screen (not great for viewers watching in HD), the chorus dressed in white like lab technicians creating a haze of undefined shapes. In the second half the screen is lifted but the imagery remains obscure, Castellucci finding increasingly strange ways to represent the rituals that Aaron and the Jews enact in the licence of Act II's frenzy of sacrifice, murder, idolatry, drinking, dancing and orgy using ritualistic movements and dance. A huge live yellow bull is led out onto the stage during the worship of the Golden Calf and tar-like black ink is poured over it. A river likewise opens up in a ditch on the stage into which the followers are bathed in black ink. The ink is also the blood of sacrifice of the four naked virgins, spread and smeared across the stage. It's all very messy.
It may be hard to pin Castellucci's concept down, but that's only to be expected in a difficult, complex and unfinished work that incorporates many of the musical ideas and personal issues with religion and Nazi oppression that Schoenberg himself was grappling with at the time of its composition. If that makes Moses und Aron sound intimidating and unapproachable, Philippe Jordan makes the intricate musical qualities of the work wonderfully accessible and utterly fascinating. There's a beautiful flow to the work as a whole but Jordan is also attentive to the richness of the detail. Thomas Johannes Mayer's 'Sprechgesang' Moses is perfect here alongside John Graham-Hall's impressive high lyrical tenor Aaron, but it's in the remarkable chorus work in this Paris production that the true force and magnificence of the work is revealed.
Musically this is an exemplary performance. Mayer's Sprechgesang (speech-song) is contrasted with the lyrical and very musical tenor of Graham-Hall, while the chorus plays a central role in the music and the drama. Philippe Jordan keeps the action flowing, making sure that Schonberg's musical ebbs and flow, and not Castellucci's stage business, moves the entire theatrical experience forward. One must mention the shameless scene-stealer in the cast, however. It's the very large live bull, playing the Golden Calf, who brings immense dignity to his role. A star is born!
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