Breaking Out of
The Operatic Comfort Zone
A Charolais bull plays the golden calf in Moses und Aron. Photo © Bernd Uhlig
If the slogan currently emblazoned across the huge facade of the Bastille Opera House – “Verdi or Schoenberg, why do you need to choose?” – represents new Paris Opera chief Stéphane Lissner’s attempt to shake opera-goers out of their naturally conservative mind-set, the full houses at performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron suggest that he is already well on the way to achieving his aim. To open the new season with such a cerebral and uncompromising opera written with the 12-tone technique (music that falls outside conventional key-based tonality) is a major statement of intent, and he is to be applauded for it.
I have often found Paris opera audiences to be more conservative than those in other cities, but the uniformly positive response at the end of the performance I attended means either that a newly adventurous opera audience has been found or that die-hard Puccini lovers are venturing out of their comfort zone. Perhaps it is a combination of the two.
The biblical subject matter of the opera reflects Schoenberg’s concern with the rising anti-Semitism he faced in Germany in the early 1930s. Although he had converted to the Protestant faith at the end of the 19th century, he became increasingly fascinated by Judaism and later in life identified once again with his childhood religion.
Moses and his brother Aaron represent two different poles of thinking: the solitary, ascetic Moses believes in purity of thought and is unable to communicate effectively with the Jewish people, while the more eloquent Aaron loves his people and is concerned with materiality and image. Schoenberg highlights this contrast by making Moses (performed here by bass-baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer) use sprechtstimme (a combination of spoken recitation and singing, first employed by the composer in Gurrelieder and then developed in Pierrot Lunaire), while Aron (played by the wonderfully versatile British tenor John Graham-Hall) sings in a more natural way.
Although Schoenberg wrote the libretto for all three acts, he only completed the music for the first two. The opera does have a sense of being unfinished and inchoate, but interestingly this seems to fit with Moses’s own inability to express himself or to feel complete. His final utterance at the end of the second act, “O Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt” (“Oh word, oh word that fails me”), seems therefore strangely appropriate.
Italian director Romeo Castellucci sets the whole of the first act in a white haze, with soloists and chorus dressed in white, emphasizing perhaps the purity but also the starkness of monotheistic religion. The superimposition of thousands of words on screens seems to anticipate the diversity and eventual failure of language to make any real spiritual change.
With Moses retreating and the people becoming bored with waiting, Aron allows them to worship other gods, including the golden calf (here represented by an enormous Charolais bull, carefully tethered by two handlers). Gradually, the chorus and Aron himself become covered in black ink-like gunk – their ability to continue singing while becoming increasingly bedraggled was positively heroic – as they embrace the material world and reject the austerity of Moses’s vision.
Although it is difficult to warm to the opera’s musical idiom in the way one can to the more lyrical operas Wozzeck and Lulu, by Schoenberg’s pupil Alban Berg, Moses und Aron is a magnificent achievement. This production, performed with aplomb by soloists, chorus and orchestra, and conducted by the always impressive Philippe Jordan, does the opera full justice. Only one week remains in this run, so get tickets while you can.
Opéra National de Paris: Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Bastille. Tel.: 0 892 89 90 90 or + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23 (from abroad). Remaining performances: November 6 and 9 at 7:30pm. Tickets: €5-€210. www.operadeparis.fr
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