Wednesday 28 October 2015

Schoenberg - Moses und Aron (Paris, 2015 - Paris)

Arnold Schoenberg - Moses und Aron

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2015

Philippe Jordan, Romeo Castellucci, Thomas Johannes Mayer, John Graham-Hall, Julie Davies, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Nicky Spence, Michael Pflumm, Chae Wook Lim, Christopher Purves, Ralf Lucas

L'Opéra National de Paris, Bastille - 20 October 2015

You really shouldn't expect anything different from Romeo Castellucci directing Schoenberg's only opera, written in the difficult form of twelve-tone serialism, but apparently there were some people in the audience at this production's premiere in the Bastille in Paris who weren't too pleased with the staging and booed the director at the end. There very few admittedly and they were drowned out by the overwhelming applause, but really, what were they expecting here? Something traditional? Something biblical?

Schoenberg's Moses und Aron is by no means a straightforward telling of the biblical story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, and it never has been. It's immediately apparent that Schoenberg is trying to deal with some very personal and artistic questions in the work, identifying to a large extent with Moses. He's not setting himself up as a God, but certainly as something of a prophet for a new gospel of dodecaphony, inventing twelve-tone serial music and giving it its greatest and most convincing expression in this opera. It's a gospel that had some notable disciples, and to a certain degree it still does have influence on the world of contemporary classical music.

As important as it would be on that experimental musical level alone, Moses und Aron would not be the great opera it is if it did not also connect in a meaningful way to the deeper human questions it raises and yes, some of those difficult issues that he is grappling with are to do with religion. For Schoenberg, the Jewish question was a very real issue that could be seen as instigating this musical epiphany. A convert to Protestantism, Schoenberg was unable to deny his Jewish roots and nature when he was still confronted with antisemitism in 1921 and attacked also when Hitler and the Nazis came to power. This had a profound impact on the composer and a great deal of soul-searching that he found himself impotent to articulate in words.

Words are the problem Moses has in the opera and he leaves it to his brother Aron to find a way of bringing God's word to the people without resorting to idolatry while he contemplates the "invisible, incommensurable, infinite, eternal, omnipresent, all-powerful" God who has revealed himself in the form of a burning bush. Language and expression to convey the infinite and indefinable without words or the use of image is a difficult concept. Even musical language has baggage associated with it, so Schoenberg invents a new way of composing music for Moses und Aron which involves serially playing every note in 12-note tone row, as well as pitching the work closer to oratorio than traditional opera, with the chorus taking prominence both as God and as the people.

Musically, Moses und Aron is extraordinarily difficult to interpret and perform (which accounts to a large extent for its rarity on the stage), but the effect is not at all difficult to appreciate. In live performance - judging by its Paris Opera production - it is also evidently a work of enormous power, certainly one of the most important works of the 20th century. And, like many of those important works, Berg's Lulu would be another, it's a work that was never finished by the composer. Following its first performance in 1954, three years after Schoenberg's death, Moses und Aron has been rarely performed and almost always in the form of the two acts written by Schoenberg with the unscored Act III omitted.

How then to interpret all of this in a stage production? Simply replaying a version of the biblical theme would undermine the importance of what is being said and how it is being said. At the same time, particularly in the unfinished version, there are irreconcilable contradictions in the work itself between form and representation that a director would be wise not to ignore. Romeo Castellucci is evidently a director who will provide a unique perspective on such matters, but that still doesn't entirely account for the spectacle that was presented on the stage of the Bastille in Paris in its première performance there.

Representation of the word and mistrust of the image is always going to be at the heart of Castellucci's production, and that's clear from the moment that Moses encounters God here not in a burning bush but in a tape recorder unreeling black tape. Moses's staff meanwhile doesn't transform into a snake exactly, but becomes a long spaceship like construction (worship of technology?). The first half of the production furthermore takes place behind a white screen that creates a haze of undefined shapes as Moses grapples with the infinite and his own personal conflict over being charged with delivering a message that he knows his people will find difficult to accept. He leaves those matters for his brother Aron to deliver, and this takes on a more concrete form in Act II, but the message is one that is inevitably corrupted in the telling.

In his 40 day absence while Moses taking to a Mount Sinai that looks like it is in the Alps, Castellucci finds increasingly strange ways to represent the rituals that Aron and the Jews enact in the licence of Act II's frenzy of sacrifice, murder, idolatry, drinking, dancing and orgy. A huge live yellow bull is led out onto the stage during the worship of the Golden Calf and tar-like black ink is poured over it. A river likewise opens up in a ditch on the stage into which the followers are bathed in black ink. The ink is also the blood of sacrifice of the four naked virgins, spread and smeared across the stage. There's little that could be said to be a literal enactment of the stage directions, but it very much adheres to the themes and to the intent of the libretto.

Adhering to the intent of the word rather than its literal depiction in untrustworthy images is evidently the key concept here, but the irony it seems is lost on a small proportion of the audience who didn't like what they saw. In such a work - unfinished and nearly impossible to stage - it hardly seems worth questioning whether Castellucci's concept bears any greater examination or analysis. What matters is whether it gets across the force and import of what is being expressed here in the music according to the intent of Schoenberg, and that it undoubtedly does.

I've seen Jordan explore the wonders of Lulu marvellously back in 2011 and he also gets a fine performance from the Paris Orchestra here. It flows beautifully as a whole but is also richly attentive to detail, even if at times Jordan seems a little less animated and confidently in control of the serial form here. Thomas Johannes Mayer's 'Sprechgesang' (sing-speak) Moses is perfect here alongside John Graham-Hall's impressive high lyrical tenor Aron, but it's in the remarkable chorus work that the true force and magnificence of the work is revealed.