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Hard work

Zurich Opera House
05/15/2011 -  and May 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 29, 2011
Arnold Schoenberg: Moses und Aron
Peter Weber (Moses), Daniel Brenna (Aron), Esther Lee (Young Girl), Cornelia Kallisch (Sick Woman), Peter Sonn (Young Man), Peter Sonn (Naked Youth), Cheyne Davidson (Another Man), Davide Fersini (Ephraimite), Valerik Murga (Priest), Camille Butcher (1st Naked Virgin), Esther Lee (2nd Naked Virgin), Anja Schlosser (3rd Naked Virgin), Katharina Peetz (4th Naked Virgin), Camille Butcher (1st Solo Voice), Irène Friedli (2nd Solo Voice), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (3rd Solo Voice), Michael Laurenz (4th Solo Voice), Davide Fersini (5th Solo Voice), Reinhard Mayr (6th Solo Voice), Michael Laurenz (A Youth), Utz Bodamer (Moses-actor), Hans-Peter Ulli (1st Aron-actor), Markus Hoffmann (2nd Aron-actor)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir Bratislava, Joszef Chabron and Thomas Lang (Chorus Masters), Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)
Achim Freyer (Set design, Director, Costumes), Martin Gebhardt (Lighting)

(© Hans Jörg Michel)

In order to attempt to understand Moses and Aron one should recall that, although Schoenberg converted to Christianity in 1898, he soon realised his unavoidable Jewishness. In 1921 he was forced to leave an Austrian lake-side area (Mattsee) when it became restricted to “bona fide” Aryans only. In 1923 he penned prophetic lines to his old friend Wassily Kandinsky:

“...I have learnt the lesson which has been forced upon me during this year...it is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed not perhaps scarcely a human being (at least the Europeans prefer the worst of their race tome) but I am a Jew.”

This realisation led the way, at the start of his exile, for his return to Judaism in 1933 and his driving passion for the creation of a Zionist state.

Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aron was apparently dear to his heart. It is a complex work and can be approached on many levels: an example of his twelve-tone system, a comment on parts of the Old Testament, or an attempt to work out the problems facing the Jewish communities at that particularly difficult time in European history. Incidentally, if you were wondering about the unusual spelling of Aron instead of the more usual Aaron, Schoenberg suffered from triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13), and Moses and Aaron consists of thirteen letters!

Many consider the work suffers artistically because it is too cerebral. The intellectual content of the work is certainly central. It is political propaganda: a manifesto as to how the Jewish people should live. Moses wants the Jewish people to understand God and the Commandments in terms of pure idea, free of images. He is, however, incapable of making himself understood. Schoenberg mirrors this by having the singer deliver his lines in a Sprechstimme – neither spoken nor sung. Aron, on the other hand, is a mediator between Moses and the Jewish people. He tries to interpret Moses' ideas for them in a manner that they will understand, so he sings (atonally). The conflict between Moses and Aron is the crux of the opera. Visually the opera's climax is a lengthy orgy around a Golden Calf. Aron offers this to the Jewish people as something concrete to worship, as their frustration mounts over Moses’ long absence on Mount Sinai writing his tablets.

Schoenberg himself worried about whether his opera Moses and Aron was performable on stage. 25 years after completion of the Second Act (the Third Act remained uncompleted, although Schoenberg had time to do so) the first staged performance took place – in Zurich, in 1957.

Achim Freyer, one of the foremost German theatre producers, is not only the Director in this new production but also responsible (with his young team) for set design and costumes. Freyer is no stranger to modern music, having produced works by both Glass and Cage in the past. The production is fascinating, highly surreal and phantasmagorical. Freyer shapes the stage into a pyramid to evoke the Pharaohs and places mirrors on the side walls. Black rocks symbolise the desert which spring to life, or light up or turn to gold at appropriate times in the opera. He places a scrim at the front of the stage: frequently the protagonists are in front of the scrim with “doubles” and even, in the case of Aron, “trebles” acting and miming the part, as though in a mirror. At times, I had to look twice to see who was really singing. The costumes are fantastic (in all senses of the word), highly original and often evoke Carnival figures. Walt Disney-like characters also make an appearance from the material world as does the Spanish Inquisition wielding daggers for the sacrificial offering and a real dog, wearing a hat, which wanders across the stage several times during the opera. The audience giggles.

Surprisingly Freyer gives us no orgy, not much blood, no real naked virgins, no repulsion and no Golden Calf. Instead, the object of desire is a huge golden Lindt chocolate rabbit, a witty coup de théâtre. Bouts of sudden virtual darkness help the stagehands change the scene and help one focus on the text. In the final scene, in which Moses reappears and realises, in defeat, that he will never convey the pure idea of God to his people, Moses’ hands are stretched almost to the top of the stage towards God.

This is a difficult score for everyone, but there's nothing tentative about the performances at every level. Peter Weber’s Moses is intense, and one can feel his anger over his inability to make his people understand what he is trying to say. His voice is too gravelly for my liking, but he gained in confidence and vocal tone as the evening went on. As Aron, Brenna had some trouble at the top of his range, but had warmed up well by mid-performance. He fared well with the hideous intonation of much of his music.

The Slovak chorus were thrilling, their diction precise, their task not made any easier by having to sing from under the stage, though presumably just within sight of the conductor. The supporting singers also made a good impression throughout.

Down in the pit, Dohnányi was impassioned and obtained precise playing from the Orchestra of the Zurich Opera. Like few others, he has devoted much of his career to the musical avant-garde and is in full command of the highly complex twelve-tone score. He conducted the piece in Frankfurt and Vienna in the 1970s and in Paris in 1995 to great acclaim.

The work does not quite satisfy in its two-act torso as it ends with a question mark. How will the dispute between the two brothers be resolved. Freyer apparently considered “playing” the Third Act, for which Schoenberg wrote the words but no music, but decided – probably wisely – against it. This is a strong piece of music theatre, but it isn't necessarily great music. Listening can at times be really hard work but the task was made infinitely easier by Christoph von Dohnányi in the pit and the amazing production.

John Rhodes



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