fri 21/06/2024

Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera

Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera

Schoenberg's esoteric masterpiece makes its point despite directors' cop-out

Moses (Sir John Tomlinson) and the Israelites: who's haranguing whom?Bill Cooper

Schoenberg’s last, unfinished, opera, seldom staged, might almost have been written for the Welsh. At its heart is some of the most refined and intricate choral writing since Bach, but linked to stage directions so complicated that one wonders whether the composer had any idea of the technical difficulties he was putting in the way of a fully realized production.

The fact that this new WNO production funks most of the stage business is not the fault of the company’s truly marvellous chorus, whose musical performance alone would be worth twice the ticket price.

As a conception, Moses und Aron is one of the most richly fascinating of “modern” operas (it was completed, so far as it ever got, 82 years ago). Its underlying subject, the chasm that separates spiritual ideas from their expression in terms that people can understand, is a direct allegory of the music in which Schoenberg cloaks it, composed according to a serial method as rigorous and abstract as the Mosaic law itself.

A strange idea for a stage drama, you might think. But you’d be wrong. On two distinct levels, Schoenberg makes excellent theatre out of his idea. By casting Moses as a profound but inarticulate thinker who can speak but not sing, while his brother Aron “explains” his thoughts in lyric song that everyone can appreciate, he sets up an intriguing series of dialogues that, on the second level, trigger the brilliant choral sequences – as vivid in their way as anything in Wagner or Musorgsky – which climax in the bloodcurdling violence and abandon of the dance round the Golden Calf.

The music overrides the stage nonsenseThis is a fine, Verdian design: the public and the private feeding on, and eventually destroying, one another. But it needs space: an empty stage, perhaps, Aron emerging from the wilderness like an aerial spirit, the people as a mobile and eventually uncontrolled throng, Moses seen from a distance bearing the tablets. These are outdoor settings. Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito absurdly locate the entire action in what might be a modern debating chamber (Act 1) or – the same without the microphones – a cinema (Act 2). There are hints at a Middle Eastern politics; an Egyptian flag is set on fire. But the chorus, in day dress, is stuck in a huddle at the back of the chamber, or in the seats, being harangued by Moses or Aron; and when it comes to the Golden Calf and the eagerly awaited orgy, the directors throw in the towel completely and offer a mirror audience watching these events on a screen which, like Moses’s God, is invisible and inconceivable to the rest of us. A more abject failure of theatre would be hard to imagine; unless of course the metaphor, though wrong, is deliberate.

The music, though, overrides the stage nonsense. As the increasingly helpless, bewildered Moses, John Tomlinson gives a performance that is as touching as it is masterful. Few singers make sense of Schoenberg’s speech-song notation; Tomlinson does so completely. Hardly less impressive is Mark Le Brocq’s smooth-talking, shallow-thinking Aron, taken over at the last minute from an indisposed Rainer Trost, but sung with an assurance that belies the extreme difficulty of music whose lyricism is constantly moulded to a fixed and somewhat angular sequencing of notes. Le Brocq (pictured right in Opera North's House of the Dead), though understudying the role, had I gather never sung it with the orchestra or on stage. You could hardly have known.

The rest of the cast are soloists who step out of the chorus. All are excellent, despite costumes and production that largely undermine their particular character. At one point in the score, Schoenberg nervously indicates that his Four Naked Virgins should be naked only “to the extent that the rules and necessities of the stage allow and require.” With Wieler and Morabito he needn’t have worried. The girls are never out of their jeans, even when being “violated” in the cinema seats, a spectacle about as sensual (or believable) as sex in Ambridge.

At the helm, Lothar Koenigs is in his element. This dark, intense, intricate score is very much his thing, and he pilots the chorus and orchestra through it with few tremors and much exquisite detailing. Whether its esoteric music will ever be whistled by taxi drivers, as Schoenberg optimistically hoped, it still makes its impact in such expert hands, even without the theatre it deserves.


On a recent Music Matters programme I argued for a higher level of debate about opera in this country, and was accused (by twitter!) of being "petulant". Well, I was not saying that I wanted to get the ctitics to like things, but to discuss them properly.Here is a case in point: "cop-out" is quite simply the wrong word to use for a production that this critic disagrees with. Moses und Aron is partly an opera about the destiny of a people, and partly a debate about the possibility of representing an abstract idea. Moses insists that an abstract idea may not be represented by an image; Aron insists that the people require an image in order to comprehend the abstract idea. Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, in their production, have responded to the first, political aspect of the opera by setting it, appropriately enough, in a parliament. They have responded to the second aspect by adopting the stance which might have been adopted by Moses himself had he been directing the opera: they steadfastly abjure all imagery or representation, and instead do as Moses does, and require us to imagine for ourselves what takes place, for instance, in the scene of the golden calf. This is not a “cop out”, It is a logical, consequent and stringent decision. You may of course disagree with the decision, but it cannot be called a “cop out”. Doing less may even actually be rather brave. - See more at:

I saw this production on Friday 30th May and found it much more compelling than I had expected. The playing and singing was excellent, however, like Steven Walsh I did not like the input of the directors. 40 days spent in the desert does not sit comfortably with a cinema. It seems that for most of this season at WNO the audience has had to endure directors' rather than composers' opera. I have seen six productions, all of which have transposed time/location as indicated in the libretto to somewhere unrelated. In the advance publicity for the next season we are offered more of the same. 'Moses in Egypt' and 'William Tell' to be given the same scenic treatment, directed by David Pountney, who it seems will perhaps also do something strange with 'Pelleas and Melisande'. Forcing 'Manon Lescaut' into the same railway station setting as Henze's 'Boulevarde Solitude' was perverse to say the least. Overall I have found this season at WNO very disappointing and will not be subscribing again next year, breaking a continuous seven or eight year run. Can the company afford to lose customers through alienation?

Catching up rather late with David Pountney's thoughtful comments, I'm sorry he doesn't mention the music. His explanation is painfully logical and coherent, but completely ignores the motions and contrasts of Schoenberg's score. Once, when David was directing Hansel and Gretel, I caught him reading Freud. But, unlike many directors, he can also read a score and his Usher productions show that he can react to one as well. He should know, then, that "discussing opera properly" includes (even insists on) a proper consideration of the music. Finally, he should know better, at his advanced age, than to blame the reviewer for the headline; and he might spare me his twitter adversaries.

Totally agree with Phil although really, I regard atonalism as a failed blind alley, that has no ability to communicate anything important to real human listeners. Yes, the WNO orchestra and chorus performed bad music very well. The production. Oh dear. WNO has really fallen into the cess pit of Regietheater big time. OK, I can and will avoid them next year, after ten years of seeing nearly everything they have done. What is sad is that the same thing has happened at Opera North (excepting their wonderful Ring cycle which being unstaged is mercifully free from directorial ignorance and vanities) and the Royal Opera is sinking fast too. I suspect their two recent triumphs of Dialogues des Carmelites and Faust will be pretty much the end of the line under their depressingly "challenging" new regime. I was initially excited that they are doing Mahagonny next year but then saw that they have entrusted it to John Fulljames, he of the appalling Opera North Clemenza and the worse ROH Donna del lago. Prague is only 2 hours away and the tickets are cheap enough to allow for air fare if you compare it with ROH. They did a nice Rigoletto this year. Maybe they will keep faith with the art form.

This has to be the most ludicrous comment regarding this production and WNO/RHO in general. I hail these companies who are not stuck in 1900 and take chances on 'challenging' or could we say 'progressive' 'intelligent' works. Was Berg's Lulu similarly unjustifiable to perform because of it's harmonic language? WNO new season includes Mozart, Bizet, Humperdinck ... If you want to watch classic performances of the stock, over performed, ingrained repertoire of the past few hundred years then buy the few hundred DVD's and stay at home. I rue the day opera companies feel they have to appease audiences rather than stick to vision. WNO's Moses and Aron was the most intense and rewarding experience of live performance I've encountered > their previous production of La Traviata was about as boring as you can get, but I would be mortified if commentators like you got their way and we all listened to diatonic, safe, predictable works for the rest of our lives. Opera need to remain progressive and inclusive - inclusive of the niche audience as well as those that only want to see Marriage of Figaro. Your bitter opinions of directors also mean nothing and add nothing to your argument, and your inability to enjoy (or I assume understand?) serial composition should be saying to you - don't go and see a serial composed work because I won't like it - not wimper that its the end of opera as we know it in the UK. We are stronger than ever.

For the most part I appreciate what you're saying, Nicholas, that we should embrace both, and of course I agree. But you slightly undercut that by equating 'diatonic' with 'safe' and 'predictable'. Strauss's Rosenkavalier, Janacek's Vixen and Poulenc's Carmelites (to name only three examples which spring to mind in superb recent productions) absolutely undermine that yoking-together. Nor need productions of 'stock, over performed, ingrained repertoire' be un'progressive'. The top masterpieces like Traviata and Figaro are always going to live again and again in new incarnations. So will Lulu, though I wait to see this production to see if it changes my mind about Moses.

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