Monday, 23 June 2014

Moses und Aron – Welsh National Opera

Photo: Bill Cooper

Hippodrome, Birmingham, 18 June 2014

Moses – John Tomlinson
Aron – Rainer Trost
A Young Maiden/First Naked Virgin – Elizabeth Atherton
A Youth – Alexander Sprague
Another Man/Ephraimite – Daniel Grice
A Priest – Richard Wiegold
First Elder – Julian Boyce
Second Elder – Laurence Cole
Third Elder – Alastair Moore
Sick Woman/Fourth Naked Virgin – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Naked Youth – Edmond Choo
Second Naked Virgin – Fiona Harrison
Third Naked Virgin – Louise Ratcliffe

Chorus, Extra Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Conductor – Lothar Koenigs
Directors – Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito
Based on an original design by Anna Viebrock

Some commentators may down-play the autobiographical connections, but it is easy to see Schoenberg’s choice of subject for the opera that marked his return to the Judaism of his roots as an allegory of the difficulties he found in conveying his new twelve-note language to his audience. Moses, experiencing the revelation of God, becomes effectively tongue-tied as he tries to impart his message to the exiled Jewish people and has to rely on the eloquence of his wayward brother Aron to do the job for him. The opera – of which Schoenberg only managed to complete two of its three acts, despite him living for a further two decades after abandoning it – is a model of serialism. And unlike Berg’s Lulu, written at almost exactly the same time in the early 1930s (and similarly left as a torso, though for more tragic reasons), there’s no leavening of the music’s hard-core twelve-note writing with allusions to tonality or to jazz bands. Indeed, Schoenberg’s language here is uncompromising in the extreme and puts enormous demands on all involved in the opera’s performance.

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production was originally created a decade or so ago for Stuttgart Opera (Wieler has since become the house’s Intendant), and strips the opera of anything illustrative. For a work exploring the struggle between idea and image – Aron’s conjuring of physical manifestations to lure the people to the new god – it proved both perverse and strangely appropriate. The directors set the two acts in a conference chamber in the present – where exactly is only hinted at, though there was perhaps the suggestion of an oppressed people meeting to assert its identity and plan its way forward. They seem to impose the hindsight of seeing the opera’s plot as an unforeseen allusion to the way that survivors of the Holocaust found their new ‘promised land’ in postwar Israel. (There was a moment when what looked like a German flag was set on fire while a blue-and-white-striped one with calf image was brandished in triumph.)

There were no miracles at the end of Act I (where Aron attempts to convince the people of God’s powers) and no Golden Calf in Act II: Aron here shows the people a film, brilliantly directed as the chorus sits in rows facing us, and all we see is their various reactions to what we can’t see, but what is obviously a disturbing run of violent and pornographic imagery that inspires its audience to the opera’s celebrated orgy (here a fairly tasteful melée of couplings in the ‘theatre’ seating). In a neat reversal of the work’s theme, therefore, we are made to conjure up our own images to match the ideas we already 'know'.

Rainer Trost (Aron) and John Tomlinson (Moses)

Photo: Bill Cooper
One of Schoenberg’s inspirational moves was to make the role of Moses a speaker, using his trademark Sprechstimme style of delivery to emphasise the character’s communicative difficulties (the composer also uses it for the choral voice of God, thus setting them both apart from the rest of the cast). John Tomlinson was born for this role – not least, if one is allowed to make physical remarks these days, in appearance, with his ‘Biblical’ mane of white hair. He tended to sing rather than strictly speak much of his role, but with a certain roughness not uncharacteristic of a singer now in late 60s and here giving appropriate edge to his delivery. Needless to say, Tomlinson’s identification with his character was unremitting and his stage presence as compelling as ever.

Schoenberg deliberately contrasts Moses’s vocal faltering with a lyrical tenor role for his brother, Aron. German tenor Rainer Trost was suitably persuasive in the part, never allowing Schoenberg’s angular melodic lines to harden into rhetoric and portraying the character with a winning combination of guile and rebelliousness.

While one can’t easily dismiss the contribution of the singers of all the smaller roles, the third lead character in Schoenberg’s opera is really the people, and the expanded WNO Chorus excelled itself in singing of confidence, accuracy and ensemble that bore witness to its 18 months of preparation for these performances. It is hard to imagine a more ideal realisation of this phenomenally complex choral writing, and if any other opera company has plans to stage this work in the near future it would be well-advised to book WNO’s chorus over its own.

The same might be said of WNO’s orchestra (and here I must declare an ‘interest’, given that my brother is a member), which played with such beauty and clarity of tone that the alleged difficulty of Schoenberg’s musical language was dispelled from the very first notes. Lothar Koenig’s eloquently delineated reading, with chords and ensemble balanced to perfection in Birmingham Hippodrome's dry acoustic, went a long way to argue for wider acceptance of Schoenberg’s masterpiece as a repertoire work rather than a mere footnote, let alone dead-end, in 20th-century opera.

Final performances on tour at the Royal Opera House, London, on 25 & 26 July.

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