“No one who takes opera seriously should miss it.” So wrote Rupert Christiansen of the Welsh National Opera’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron which opened in the Cardiff Millennium Centre before being brought to the Royal Opera House for two performances. This is the first example of an annual visit to the Royal Opera House by one of WNO’s “most ambitious” productions, courtesy of that wonderful cultural firebrand, David Pountney CBE. It’s not my place to talk about the discrepancy in funding between the two companies, just to comment that, on the basis of the quality of the performance I attended, you wouldn’t know WNO received less financial support. Come to think of it, one of my top five operatic experiences of last year was Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream at the Birmingham Hippodrome. This was the last time I saw the late Richard Angas on the stage. I have just read Mr Pountney’s blog about his death in rehearsal and learned that Mr Angas was learning the role of Aron at the time of his death.
His replacement in this production, originally created for Stuttgart Opera by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, was Sir John Tomlinson. He knows the role well, having performed it at The Met as well as on the stage of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Sir John brings something unique to every role, whether he is a Green Knight, a Minotaur, Thomas Becket or Gurnemanz. As well as a towering stage presence he has a bass voice with such resonance it is almost as if he is singing from within the cavernous depths of the earth. His Moses is perhaps closest to his Gurnemanz, but with aphasia. The Truth about the One True God, which Moses struggles so hard to convey to the Jewish People, renders him virtually speechless. When he returns from the mountain with the Commandments and discovers the People have seemingly reverted to the worship of idols and atavistic morality, he has a Garden-of-Gethsemane moment, feeling his task is insurmountable. His God is Invisible. The very fact that the Commandments are written down illustrates that mankind is enslaved by the material world. Act Two ends, as does Schoenberg’s composition, with the words, “O word, you word that I lack.”
By contrast, his brother Aron (rather than Aaron, which would have spoiled the tone-row) is a highly articulate propaganda merchant, his meandering lyrical lines in stark contrast with Moses’ Sprechtstimme. Rainer Trost has an enviable international reputation as a Mozart singer with the occasional David from Meistersinger thrown into the mix. You might think “I don’t want to spend two hours and a quarter in the opera house listening to an opera without tunes,” but Aron’s vocal lines comprise one long aria, an extruded threnody if you will, lamenting the enslavement of the Jewish people and revealing he is a fervent evangelist for the One True God. Mr Trost’s Aron was the perfect foil to Sir John’s Moses, maintaining legato line-and-length singing throughout in a punishingly high tessitura. His characterisation too was fascinating, more than a little reminiscent of David Icke, on the edge of insanity. He persuaded me that Aron admires his brother and shares his faith, but he himself is the consummate politician, willing to use whatever means necessary to manipulate the populace.
In many senses the Jewish people are the stars of this opera. The chorus of Welsh National Opera, under the direction of Simon Harris, is swelled to as many as eighty for this production. Throughout the work they sing a mixture of Sprechstimme, stretto fugues and declaimed texts, piling in and out of the set, surging forward vocally and physically, fragmented and reuniting, rather like the endless motion of the sea. Moments reminded me of Delius’ choral writing in A Mass of Life and the opening sections in which a semi-choir represents the Voice of God prefigure the ethereal choruses of Nono’s Prometeo. Just as Monty Python’s The Life of Brian clearly illustrates the fallibility of a crowd searching for an object of worship, this chorus of exiled Jews transmits misinformation via Chinese whispers and perks up to a man at the prospect of canem et circenses.
Listening to Schoenberg making the transition from fin-de-siècle excess to the cleaner, more mathematical lines of serialism is a little like seeing an exhibition of the work of Piet Mondrian. A shift from realism into the abstract doesn’t deprive the music of its heart, passion and colour but rather intensifies it. Huge forces are employed in this WNO production, yet it is a score which a large part of the time demands a sense of intimacy and delicacy from the performers. Much of the music is multi-layered with lines of dialogue overlapping each other, yet each line can be heard as the composer pares the orchestra down to chamber forces, enabling the protagonists to be heard. Sometimes the orchestra is like a second chorus; at other times the chorus forms part of the orchestra. In a Guardian interview earlier this year, Sir John and the chorus master spoke of the huge demands the composer makes on his chorus:
“I was due to sing in Daniel Barenboim’s production at La Scala,” recalls Tomlinson, “but it had to be cancelled because the chorus couldn’t learn it in time.” (Wales beats Italy 1-0.)
“We’ve been rehearsing this for 18 months,” says WNO chorus master Stephen Harris. “This is such a challenge. It’s such a different sound world from what we’re used to.”
Most of the 20th and 21st century productions I attend will resort to using specialist new music orchestras – witness the recent production of Francesconi’s Quartett at ROH2 which employed the London Sinfonietta to good effect. WNO used their own in-house orchestra, conducted by Lothar Koenigs. I had been impressed enough with how they played Donizetti and Mozart last weekend; with the Schoenberg I could have well have been listening to the orchestra of Ensemble Modern, such was the precision, commitment and empathic understanding with which they delivered this challenging score. My own experience of learning to perform music of the Second Viennese School is that initially the fragments in your part make no sense. It feels like the equivalent of Painting by Numbers. How can anyone create art out of mathematical formulae? But study and learn a Schoenberg score for many years, add in a trip or two to Vienna if you can, and eventually you will understand that your fragment joins up with another fragment to create a lyrical arch of pure intensity. Now I love to listen out for the tone row and its inversions, to relish the unlikely couplings of instruments, to appreciate the detail of his use of varied articulation and dynamics. Could it be that this particular pit orchestra has embraced the fact that, thanks to David Pountney, they can finally break free of the chains of endless Verdi, Mozart and Puccini and look forward with enthusiam to learning something different and challenging? (You see, miracles can and do happen.)
This production uses just one set, something between the White House Briefing Room and a university lecture theatre. There is no Golden Calf, naked virgins nor a staff being turned into a snake. Everything is understated. (Even the orgy is more like sedate afternoon tea with the Swansea Swingers.) We witness no miracles and can’t see the violent and pornographic films with which Aron appeases the people, who have lost faith and want to revert to the old polytheistic ways. One man’s idolatry is of course another’s iconography. This is the line that Mr Morabito takes in the programme. In the director’s view, Aron has not lost his way nor is he rousing the people against Moses. He is the one person who understands that the people need something more tangible to worship than an abstract idea. The concept of God who is unseen yet all-knowing is virtually impossible to convey in words alone. A politician like Aron knows how to rouse the rabble.
We know all this is happening, not because it is depicted on stage, but because the drama with all its implications and nuances is played out in the music. Just as the Jews didn’t have to see God to believe in Him, we don’t need to see every stage direction followed to the letter, since all the drama as well as a commentary on its meaning is present in the orchestral writing. And what a refreshing change to see a production which is challenging and thought-provoking without resorting to visual shock-tactics.
The Welsh National Opera have also decided not to present Act Three in the form of a play reading – and I think that’s right. Left as it is, the music has the last word. My thanks to the Indefinable, Unfathomable God for bringing David Pountney back to these shores from Bregenz. It took his driving force to bring this extraordinary work back to London after nearly fifty years. In fact it made a nice change to hear German sung on the main stage of the Opera House. Next year’s highlight of this new collaboration between the two companies will be Peter Pan by Richard Ayres and, if you want to support David Pountney’s work, don’t forget to buy a ticket for his new production of Pelléas in 2015 in either Cardiff or Birmingham.
Photos: Bill Cooper