Moses und Aron at the 2009 Ruhrtriennale
The right way to stage Schoenberg's masterpiece

Schoenberg: Moses und Aron
Michael Boder
Willy Decker
2009 Ruhrtriennale
DVD, EuroArts
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Stream at YouTube

Many operas can succeed in either a traditional or a modern staging. A few, like La Bohème, seem to thrive only in a traditional production. But there are others that really need a modern or abstracted staging to come off, and Moses und Aron is one of them.

Yes, Schoenberg's only full length opera is ostensibly about the flight of the Israelites from Egypt, and in the early 1970s Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet actually brought forth a filmed production that's set and shot in the Sinai. It doesn't work. The obvious incongruity of twelve-tone music in the desert accompanying ephod-clad dancers totally undermines the suspended disbelief. More to the point though, Moses und Aron is the quintessential metaphorical opera. It's really about the tension between God and the Word, between the modern composer and recalcitrant audiences, between the concept in your head vs. one's imperfect efforts at representing it tangibly, and every other formulation of the essential dilemma between an idea and its vulgarization. Clearly, it's a thesis not tied down to a Biblical timespace. And although there's indeed some tone painting in Schoenberg's score (the flute waltz accompanying Aron's first entrance is suggestive of his happy-go-lucky personality in contrast to the chronically "serious" Moses, and the dance rhythms of the Second Act orgy scene are certainly graphic in their own way), Moses und Aron is not atmospheric in the mold of other modernist operas like Wozzeck, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Nightingale, L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, etc., and its music certainly doesn't conjure up stereotypical images of Exodus and Ancient Egypt.

Taking all this into account, a successful staging of Moses und Aron requires musicians capable of dealing with its technical challenges, a creative team with an awesome theatrical and visual concept, uninhibited actors (the orgy scene in the Second Act has been rendered convincingly only in recent years with directors willing to literally strip their players), and an audience equipped to grasp Schoenberg's language and aesthetic. These conditions have finally begun to coalesce, and we're lucky to be alive at a time when this opera is blossoming onstage through some great productions.

And this is a great production. Its first star is the space itself: the Jahrhunderthalle Bochum, a converted gasworks with a tall rectangular interior which the Ruhrtriennale customized by installing movable platforms for orchestra and audience. The latter is constrained in size to about 1,000, and is divided in half lengthwise like a high school gymnasium, only in this case the facing bleachers can trucked in and out to create an expandable "stage" region in between. Video director Hannes Rossacher frequently uses overhead camera angles to emphasize the shifting performance area (and perhaps to suggest the eye of God). And the singers frequently move up and down the audience aisles. Dale Duesing's Moses, in fact, begins the opera seated among the audience — one of "us" you might say — prior to his election. Stage Director Willy Decker depicts no burning bush in this opening scene, deeming the disembodied voice of God to amply suffice (it's portrayed by Schoenberg using six unseen solo voices, whose atonal, unearthly sonorities struck Alex Ross as anticipating the sound world of Feldman's Rothko Chapel). The first "image" comes as the voice of God explains the covenant, during which the bleachers divide to reveal a white tableau in which has been placed the production's lone recurring prop: an eight-foot black staff that doubles as a crayon. Moses takes the staff, but avoids writing with it (he has the idea but not the Wort).

Duesing is an American baritone with a pedigree in Second Vienna School music (including a notable production of Wozzeck), who absolutely looks the part of a grandfatherly educated Jew. By contrast, Andreas Conrad's Aron, who we meet in the second scene, looks much younger and reminds me of some sincere but simpleminded Texas ministers I've known. Aron is excited to hear Moses description of God and the covenant, and being the one beguiled by symbols and icons, he starts drawing on the stage floor with the staff. A black-and-white Star of David is the result, the restrained pallet being a salient feature of Decker's design (there is very little actual color deployed throughout except for the copious blood in the orgy scene).

The two brothers haggle a bit over their bargain, in which Aron agrees to be Moses' mouthpiece. This leads at about the 14:15 mark to Moses' line Reinige dein Denken, lös es von Wertlosem, weihe es Wahrem! ("Purify your thinking, free it from worthless thoughts, let it be righteous!"). It's a famous passage, and a good opportunity to talk more about the music. You may already know the basic points: that the inarticulate Moses is forced to mutter in sprechstimme (heightened speech notated with approximate pitches but precise rhythms) whereas his eloquent brother Aron sings normally as a tenor, and that the music is cast in an uncompromising twelve-tone idiom. Much has also been made of the fact that Schoenberg constructed the entire opera out of a single combinatorial row, but what's more important from a listener's perspective is that this row is constructed almost entirely of seconds (frequently inverted into sevenths) and tritones, guaranteeing that the result will be relentlessly angular and dissonant. Reinige dein Denken offers one of the clearest melodic statements of the full row, in the bass instruments following the rhythm of Moses' words.

Note that the minor third E♭- C♮ is the only traditionally consonant interval in the tune. Also note that although the line is delivered sprechstimme by Duesing in this performance, it can optionally be sung normally — the only place in the opera where Moses can do this (thus underscoring the importance placed upon it dramatically and musically by the composer). The tune is reprised by a solo trombone at the end of the scene beneath Aron's admonition "Go deliver your people".

The third scene introduces the rest of the Israelites, clad in modern office attire and confined initially to a translucent box that seems to symbolize their enslavement. In another famous passage that sums up the story's central dilemma, the chorus describes Moses and Aron's return thus: "Now Moses is in front of Aaron. Now it looks like Aaron is ahead and Moses behind…" and so on until suddenly it's announced "They have arrived!". Both the return of the brothers, and the miracles that Aron performs to prove God's existence, are depicted using video projections against the side of the aforementioned box. The music that accompanies the transformation of the staff into a snake has reminded some of Fafner's "serpent" music from The Ring.

With the Israelites' acceptance of God, the box is lifted for good, suggesting their eventual emancipation from the Egyptians. And the uptempo ending of the First Act, reflecting the volk's newfound optimism and brash confidence, is more exciting here than I've ever heard it. Nevertheless the utter lack of conventional scenery or set pieces reinforces the impression of a lost people, longing for palpable roots, both of a physical and a moral variety.

Among the choristers are 15-odd strategically distributed models and dancers. Their job is to do the heavy lifting where attractive bodies and/or artful movement are required, especially in Act Two with its notorious Golden Calf and orgy scenes that transpire during Moses' 40-day absence. Decker does a good job of integrating these players with the general mass of onstage humanity, so their presence causes no loss of continuity (it helps that the age of the choristers is relatively young). The Calf itself is white plaster in this production, and it gets carried in through a corridor that divides the orchestra in two. I don't flinch from nudity but I did want to cover my eyes at this juncture in case one of the four young men hoisting this large prop accidentally crashed into a nearby instrument. Speaking of nudity, the "four naked virgins" are sung by still-clothed sopranos and mezzos, but four attractive déshabillé models are simultaneously deployed and sacrificed, the crowd, now fortified with supernumeraries, subsequently smearing themselves in the virgins' blood as the orgy commences. The staging allows the interpretation that the four singers are commentators or ad hoc pagan officiants rather than the disembodied voices of the virgins themselves.

Moses returns with the Ten Commandments, and is horrified by the debauchery. An argument ensues with Aron over the people's demand for tangible imagery and easily grasped metaphor, leading to Aron's only non-sung line: "paraphrasing without parody", which complements Moses earlier Reinige dein Denken. This is followed by the celebrated ending where the Israelites file off in idolatrous confusion while Moses bitterly anguishes "O word, thou eloquent word, that I lack!" to the accompaniment of a lone dramatic line in the violins that ends on a sustained F#. (Attentive row-counters will notice that the non-doctrinaire Schoenberg has exchanged the expected positions of B♮ and C#).

Schoenberg's orchestration always was problematic, and a dense score like Moses und Aron is challenging under any circumstances, notwithstanding the added complications of a non-standard, acoustically live performance space. It's to the credit of conductor Michael Boder and his musicians, as well as the technical team, that this DVD sounds as good as it does. Clearly much preparatory work was done with respect to sound projection, even to the extent of subtly miking the principal singers, in defiance of one of the opera establishment's most deeply held taboos. Note, for example, the clarity and sound separation in the clangorous, fired-up ending to Act One, the Israelites jubilantly exiting in anticipation of their liberation to the tune of a tritone oom-pah in the bass. As Chris Mullins put it, few will leave this opera humming its tunes, "but Schoenberg's sound world leaves its own impression, one of force and honesty", and that has never been conveyed more clearly than in this recording.

Schoenberg finished the first and second acts of Moses und Aron as early as 1935, and though he lived another two decades, producing many new works stylistically compatible with this one, he was never able to bring himself to write the brief third act that would have settled the drama in Moses' favor. He must have realized subconsciously that resolving the underlying dilemma would have left him without a story to tell. What he did complete went unstaged during his lifetime, then spent decades as a neglected torso before finally being embraced as an "unfinishable whole". It is now starting to receive its due in the world's opera houses, with strong productions like Levine/Vick at the Met in 1999 (featuring John Tomlinson and Philip Langridge) and Jordan/Castellucci at Paris Opera in 2015. But this particular Moses und Aron is so compelling, its venue so unique, and the contributions of Decker, Duesing, Rossacher and the others so perfect, that it's a once-in-a-lifetime music theater experience that you will remember for years to come.

- Michael Schell (first published November 2015)

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