Review: WNO - Moses und Aron @ WMC
Praise WNO! For they work in mysterious ways. This summer season sees them tackle three highly ambitious new productions and even a World Premier staging. The theme this time round is that of Faith, and, along with Verdi's Nabucco, Moses und Aron is our surprising opener.
When it was announced last year that this was to be staged, I felt a quiver of excitement. Much respect for them putting on this piece. This rarely-performed opera is a 20th Century masterpiece but is austere and at times painful to listen to. Composed by Arnold Schoenberg, he created a radical new way of composing, know as the twelve-tone technique or atonality (a term he despised). This compositional method involves the manipulation of an ordered series of all twelve notes within the chromatic scale. Dubbed by the Nazis as ''degenerate music'', it has never been far from controversy in its stark, confrontational nature. The music world has never been the same since. This is music that very much divides people.
During the 1930s, a fervent time of anti-Semitism in Austria and Germany, Schoenberg moved to the US and had the urge to go back to his Jewish roots and write this piece (he converted to Church of England years before). This formless, almost hovering score is rich in its uneasiness, with momentary flushes of bliss. The singing is very complex, with Moses using Sprechgesang (spoken singing), a weird mesh of both types of communication; Aron in near melodic phases; and the chorus in their gloriously rasping opinions and statements, ready to turn at the drop of a hat.
If you know the biblical story, then you know the story of the opera. Moses has been spoken to (via the burning bush) by God to make the Israelites conform to this monogamous type of worship. Unable to articulate this to the masses, he seeks the help of his brother Aron. With much persuasion and eloquence, he wins them round. But the road it not easy...
It's grand to see how the music pierces so much of the story. How an individual deals with the atheistics of delivering their most important revelations (the dramaturg, Sophie Rashbrooke said of this in translating from the German for the surtitles). How views are changed by others, altered into a state that completely changes your original intentions. Aron can be seen everywhere today, in the altering and wrong judgments on certain elements of modern life. The chorus as a mass, who need firm persuading and further encouragement also parallel well on us today.
Directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito* has pared down the setting with a current political take on this biblical story. Set in a parliament, the chorus sprawl and twist with much concern onto the set in hoodies, jeans and other casual wear. Moses, played by bass baritonee, Sir John Tomlinson, is dapper in a suit, whilst Aron (Marc Le Brocq replacing an ill Rainer Trost) is in his own hoodie, showing who has the common touch. With the both of them attempting to persuade this mass of people, you feel it could all go wrong at any given time.
When Moses leaves for 40 days, Aron stupidly brings out a golden calf statue to represent the true God. This goes from bad to worse as the crowds desperation leads to primal urges of murder, rape and a sexual frenzy. This leads to the famous orgy scene. Here, not much happens as the 'golden calf' is a film watched by the crowd. We see them absorb it, bringing in them all sort of crude desires. We as an audience have to imagine what is on that screen, as the chorus stare out at us as an audience. No staff that turns into a snake, no arm riddled with leprosy and certainly no pillar of fire. Just a Bible. This audience member was hoping to witness some miracles for these modern times.
It's a bizarre work, with no third act (he wrote the words but died before he could do the music), with Moses und Aron being the only lead characters, the rest taken up by some chorus members. The composer even had Triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13, hence no second 'a' in Aron's name (that would make it 13 letters in the title). Like his pupil, Berg, and his opera, Lulu (who also died before completing the third act), we now have a completed 3rd act thanks to composer Zoltan Kocsis. But it could take some time before this becomes part of performances. The two hours on their own are intense and exhausting enough (wine helped).
The orchestra and Lothar Koenigs remain at the top of their game by tackling this monster of an opera. Tomlinson was a controlled but suffering maniac as Moses, delivering that booming and rumbling voice he is so well known for. The brief moments he addressed the crowd on the rostrum mic projected by speakers were stark and unsettling. Le Brocq, as the understudy for Aron, proved his chops with the attempted harmonious treats, as the resource of comfort in this brittle work. It has taken the chorus an eye-bulging 18 months to properly rehearse this. They truly prove how mesmerising they are by belting out this feverish and unrelenting writing.
I am to prepare myself, as I have booked to see it again. It's only afterwards that you realise how much of a grip it has had on you.
WNO hasn't passed over the story of Moses just yet, as the Autumn season will see a new production of Rossini's Moses in Egypt. But for now, my faith in Welsh National Opera is rising, after a few seasons of discontent.
Go see it... if you dare!
Moses und Aron continues at the Wales Millennium Centre on Friday 30th May and Saturday 7th June. Further performances are on at the Birmingham Hippodrome on Wednesday 18th June and the Royal Opera House, London on 25th and 26th July.
Article: Review: WNO - Lulu @ WMC
External Link: *Director Sergio Morabito on Moses und Aron
Photo Credit: Bill Cooper