Moses und Aron
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Moses und Aron

Opéra National de Paris

BORN ON THE 13 OF SEPTEMBER 1874, and dead on the 13of July 1951, Arnold Schönberg had a life long phobia of the number thirteen. It was for this reason he dropped the first “a” of “Aaron” for his opera Moses und Aron. The opera’s twelve-letter title coincidentally matched the number of tones used by the composer for this example of strict dodecaphonic harmony. 

Moses was a daring choice for Stéphane Lissner’s first new production as director of the Opéra de Paris. The production opens a chapter in the history of the house that promises the return of major contemporary stage directors, while not neglecting the necessity of sponsorship and audience support. The first performances of new productions this season are to be given for an audience of young people (under twenty-eight years of age), a program designed to inspire a new generation of opera lovers. Moses und Aron was initially planned to be a production by the late Patrice Chéreau, whose place was taken by Romeo Castellucci. The performance was conducted by the Paris Opera’s music director Philippe Jordan.

Moses und Aron is a testament not only to the composer's mold-breaking harmonic system, but also of his struggle with his Jewish faith; he converted to Christianity in 1898, but returned to Judaism in 1933. Castellucci opened the show in a bare no-man’s land, with much of the first act placed behind a white gauze onto which key words were projected. A reel-to-reel tape recorder slowly spewed yards of tape onto the stage. The recorded and written words showed the impossibility of conveying the sense of a single intangible God or capturing the mystery of faith. This is the dilemma that faces Moses and his more forthright brother Aron. Misty images gave way to the staff of Moses, which was miraculously transformed not into a snake, but a modern missile, with imagery that recalled Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey. The golden calf was no yearling, but a full-sized (and mercifully sedate) Charolais bull, who like the rest of the cast suffered the indignity of being covered with flowing black ink. Like the yards of abandoned tape that formed the burning bush, the spilled ink suggested the futility of trying to pin down the divine by human means. The production was strong on poetic imagery, but weaker on clearly characterized individuals—one can only dream of the humanity that Chéreau might have brought to this complex fraternal relationship.

Jordan's conducting of the work was outstanding, revealing the lyricism of the past, and the power of this new voice in twentieth century music. In a work which can still be an austere experience for the public, Jordan positioned himself midway between the sterile perfection of Boulez and the expressionist approach of Solti. The new chorus master José Luis Basso also achieved remarkable results. This underachieving chorus at last sounded like a world-class ensemble, singing and chanting as the people of Israel with devastating force.

John-Graham Hall's performance in the punishing role of Aron was a triumph of dramatic intelligence and vocal economy over the need for fresher, more piercing tenor tone, something provided by the young Nicky Spence in the role of the young man on October 20. While Aron is a role of strongly sung vocal lines, Moses uses Sprechgesang. Bass-baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer began learning the role using sung tones, which he later transformed into the harmonic speech required by the composer and the result was musically commanding. Schönberg did not complete the opera, but the second act ends appropriately with Moses unable to communicate the essence of his message—“O wort, du wort, das mir fehlt!” (“O word, you word, that I lack!”). This spiritual and musical allegory for our time was applauded by an enthusiastic audience.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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