The Promised Land
Metropolitan Opera House
Arnold Schoenberg: Moses und Aron
Philip Langridge (Aron), John Tomlinson (Moses)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera
James Levine (conductor)
Paul Brown (director)
In the 1980's when James Levine was consolidating his power as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, he was only thwarted once in his ambitious programming decisions. His desire to present Schoenberg's Moses und Aron was consistently vetoed by a board wary of poor ticket sales and the label of radicalism. Levine did mount a spectacular performance of the monodrama Erwaertung with Jessye Norman, coupling it with the hardly less dissonant Duke Bluebeard's Castle of Bartok in a magnificent evening exposing the staid Met audience to the possibilities of their own century's rich musical heritage. Levine received vindication of a bitter sort when the competing New York City Opera staged Moses und Aron in 1990 to rave reviews and respectably filled houses and the present project was revivified and finally scheduled. It took 40 years for Moses to lead his people through the wilderness but 65 for patrons of the Met to hear this modern masterpiece.
Seemingly revolutionary, Moses und Aron, like its exact contemporary Lulu by Alban Berg, is actually a reactionary work. Filled with octaves, triads and an harmonic structure more akin to the orchestral interlude from Mahler's Eighth Symphony than to any of the works of the Second Viennese pantonal period, the opera is in many ways a neo-Classical piece, harkening back to the operatic world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The twelve-tone system, with its emphasis on order, balance and harmonic cohesion, was an attempt to reintroduce structure to modern musical thought. An ardent numerologist, Schoenberg realized the cosmological significance of the number 12 (twelve months in the year, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles of Christ) and fashioned his opera's title using twelve letters (as music history's most famous triskaidekaphobe, he altered the spelling of Aaron's name). Hearing the work 70 years after its creation, one is struck not by its iconoclasm but rather by its conservatism.
John Tomlinson made for a powerful Moses, his booming basso not hampered by the speech-song technique required for this difficult role. He lurched about like a man befuddled, fitting the reluctant leader torn between feelings of loyalty and unworthiness. Philip Langridge was a suitably oily Aron, sounding much like a televangelist in his desire to convert his people to the righteous but ultimately unfathomable deity. His sweet tenor was often drowned out by the fabulous Met orchestra, whose extra rehearsals in September allowed them to navigate the dodecaphonic idiom with seeming ease and remarkable clarity. The work was presented without the skeleton of the third Act, with Moses' lament that he lacked the words to go on as the most logical dramatic conclusion.
Moses is a truly grand opera, in the best Parisian tradition of Berlioz and Meyerbeer and, as a result, the real star of the evening is the chorus, called upon to create the voice of God through shrieks, whispers, speech and song and tasked again and again to carry the dramatic action, whether as the 70 elders or the reluctant flock of congregants. Special mention should be made of the longtime chorus master Raymond Hughes and his collaborator Romano Gandolfi, whose Met debut coincided with this important premiere. There is also a full length ballet in the score which outdoes anything created for the Paris Opera and featured men smearing themselves with feces, women sacrificed to the golden calf (naturalistically portrayed with entrails exposed), the amazing rhythmic essay known as the butchers' dance (much more inventive than anything in Le Sacre du Printemps) and many religio-erotic gyrations putting the lie to the idea that Schoenberg is cold and distant for a mass audience.
The sets by Paul Brown were inventive, creating a true sense of loneliness in the desert and always keeping the image of the burning bush and Mt. Sinai as a silent witness to the debauchery of the mob. Moses descends with the 10 Commandments from an airline stairway dropped from the rafters and the modern dress for a Biblical story created a sense of universal time that was a propos of the opera's serious reflections on the nature of God and organized religion. As a premiere performance, the opera was greeted by a full and appreciative house with several luminaries of the musical world guests in the audience, their attendance a tribute to Mr. Levine's well deserved stature in this town.
I was fortunate to hear Wozzeck at the old Met in the early '60's conducted by Karl Boehm. At that marvelous performance there was much resistance from the crowd and considerable grousing during intermissions. It was especially heartening for me to attend a Schoenberg premiere at the Met that was so well attended and loudly appreciated. As we move into a new century perhaps we can now finally cherish the masterworks of our own.
Frederick L. Kirshnit