In theory, I should have hated Moses und Aron, and I went into the auditorium at the Wales Millennium Centre fully expecting to come out with a puzzled, slightly agitated expression on my face and the bitter feeling that I would never get the last two or three hours of my life back. Firstly, it’s by Arnold Schoenberg, a composer most famous for inventing what I call “spiky-wikey, plinky-plonky music”, but which those in the know call twelve tone, or dodecaphonic music. Twelve tone music isn’t easy on the ear, it certainly isn’t something I would tend to listen to at home, and when you’ve got a whole opera written in that style, it’s unlikely that you’ll come away humming any of the tunes.
Secondly, the work is unfinished. Schoenberg began writing it in the late 1920s, and had only written music for two of its three acts when his family were forced to flee Germany in 1933, resettling in California, where the composer would live and work until his death in 1951. I’m never quite sure how I feel about unfinished works. An unfinished novel such as Gogol’s Dead Souls is a masterpiece, even if it does end mid-sentence. Nabokov’s Laura, on the other hand, is little more than a collection of Post It notes and doodles, of interest to no-one except the most die-hard of fans and scholars.
Moses und Aron has, at least, the virtue of a fairly familiar story – telling a truncated account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, but focused largely on the period when they wandered the desert for forty years.
If they’d had Google Maps they could have been there in under a week.
More specifically, it explores the relationship – albeit in fairly esoteric terms – between brothers Moses and Aaron (here spelled “Aron”, allegedly because of Schoenberg’s triskaidecaphobia – Moses und Aaron having 13 letters!) After witnessing the miracle of the burning bush, Moses (Sir John Tomlinson) finds his brother Aaron (Rainer Trost) and takes him on as his spokesperson, tasked with communicating the complex message of God to the masses. This, Aaron does with what it’s fair to call “mixed results”, and the opera takes us up to the moment when Moses comes down from the mountain to find the Israelites fornicating like jack rabbits and worshipping false idols as if both pursuits were going rapidly out of fashion. So far, so The Ten Commandments, but that is where all similarities with the Easter-Sunday-afternoon-swallowing Biblical epic end.
Plus, at just over 2 hours, Schoenberg’s opera clocks in at half the length of this bad boy.
The WNO have borrowed a production first staged by Jossi Wieler and Serge Morabito in Stuttgart in 2003 which updates the action from the almost featureless deserts of the Middle East to a large, retro conference room; reminiscent, in particular, of the UN’s General Assembly in New York and Ken Adam’s designs on films such as Dr Strangelove. The brothers spend much of the opening scenes moving around the empty banks of mauve, leatherette seating, the libretto – with its references to burning bushes etc – often seeming more symbolic than literal.
When at last the Israelites arrive, they resemble not a ragged bunch of Olde Worlde peasants but a coachload of hijacked tourists, clad in tracksuits, jeans and t-shirts; shuffling their way uneasily into the chamber and then clambering over the seats en masse, asking their prophet of choice for answers.
As for Moses… This certainly isn’t a be-robed Charlton Heston commanding the Red Sea to part. Tomlinson’s prophet prowls the stage like a lion with a thorn in his paw, and the part – though written for a bass – is performed in sprechgesang, or sprechstimme; a combination of singing and speaking. When miracles, such as the transformation of Moses’ staff into a snake, or water turning into blood, are depicted, they are shown either as conscious metaphor (we see neither a staff nor a snake) or as confidence trick, suggesting that Aron is a charlatan from the get-go.
All this – particularly the decision to give the piece a modern setting, could come across as gimmicky, and I’m sure many will feel that it’s just that, but for me it allowed the ideas (and the libretto is packed full of ’em) to breathe, and to resonate with a contemporary audience far more than they might if Tomlinson and Co. were wandering about between fibreglass boulders in long, flowing robes.
Take the main set design, for instance. As already mentioned, it’s reminiscent of the UN’s headquarters, a building completed in 1952, just four years after the creation of the state of Israel. Is the production drawing a parallel between those Palestinians who have been more or less stateless since 1948, and the wandering Israelites of the Old Testament? Perhaps. Does it beat us over the head with this? Thankfully not.
In the second (and final) act, this space is transformed into a cinema auditorium for the scenes in which the Israelites, in Moses’ absence, descend into utter depravity. This device is surprisingly effective. The comparison between a golden idol and the cinema screen is far from strained, with lines referring to “golden rays” uncannily appropriate in context. The fact that this “audience” of Israelites are actually watching us gives the scene another dimension again – it is implied they are watching scenes of violence and/or pornography, but if we are what they are looking at, we become complicit. We are the sinners.
“Oh my God… Have you seen what that woman in Stalls J14 is wearing?”
What’s more, much of this happens over a prolonged instrumental, with Schoenberg’s jarring, jagged music sounding surprisingly like film music from the 1960s, whether it’s Kubrick’s use of Ligetti and Penderecki in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Jerry Goldsmith’s percussive score to Planet of the Apes. By the time the scene has hit its zenith – or nadir – of debauchery, music and action are perfectly in sync, hitting a gut-wrenching crescendo that’ll have you begging for Moses to get his arse down off Sinai to sort things out.
Ultimately, it’s useless pretending Moses und Aron will be for everyone. I’m pretty sure I could hear nostrils flaring during the orgy scene’s more explicit moments, and the bleakly ambiguous “ending”, with Moses’ lamentation that his God defies human words, may leave some feeling unsatisfied. This isn’t exactly an opera that makes you feel, not in the sense that La boheme will have you reaching for the Kleenex, but if you’re willing to engage with the subject matter, it’s certainly an opera that will make you think.
Both Tomlinson and Trost are excellent, but the show is stolen by the chorus. While our eponymous “heroes” remain distant and unknowable to the end, the chorus is us. Their questions are our questions. Their flaws – however ugly – are our flaws. The chorus capture this in their performances, and make grappling with Schoenberg’s notoriously challenging vocal arrangements look effortless.
Moses und Aron will appear at Birmingham Hippodrome on June 18th and the Royal Opera House, London, on July 25th and 26th.
For an opposing take on the same opera – albeit one that, in my view, completely misses the point – you can read the Western Mail’s review here.