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S & H International Opera Review

Schoenberg: Moses und Aron, Soloists, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus, James Levine, Metropolitan Opera, New York City, NY, December 23rd 2003 (BH)

Conductor: James Levine
Production: Graham Vick
Set and Costume Designer: Paul Brown
Choreographer: Ron Howell
Lighting Designer: Matthew Richardson
Stage Director: Peter McClintock
Chorus Master: Raymond Hughes
Moses John Tomlinson
Aron Philip Langridge
Young Girl Rachelle Durkin
Youth Garrett Sorenson
Man William Stone
Priest Sergei Koptchak
Three Elders John Shelhart, David Asch, Roger Andrews
Sick Woman Ellen Rabiner
Ephraimite William Stone
Young Man Tony Stevenson
First Naked Virgin Rachelle Durkin
Second Naked Virgin Heidi Skok
Third Naked Virgin Sandra Piques Eddy
Fourth Naked Virgin Jennifer Hines
Naked Youth Garrett Sorenson
Solo Voices in the Orchestra Joyce Guyer, Edyta Kulczak,
Jennifer Hines, Charles Reid, Hector Vasquez, Richard Vernon



Graham Vick’s glowing burnt-orange desert, underneath an intense aqua sky, is the image that lingers the longest in this white-hot production of Schoenberg’s masterpiece. Vick’s vision has the cast trudging across giant sand dunes painted in David Hockney colors, and the floor includes small triangular hinged panels that open up, enabling cast members to stand in them as if in small geometric ponds – oases scattered around the stage. The strong colors and almost cartoon-like flatness only help to push Schoenberg’s vivid writing into the forefront. Like any great interpretation, Vick’s thoughts are innovative but absolutely serve the piece, a bit ironic given that this is one opera that many listeners would like to avoid. (And many did; for this final performance the house was probably two-thirds full).

Moses deals with the conflict between the definable and the inscrutable, between speech and music, between that which can be explained and that which must be accepted on faith. The music itself lurches back and forth between huge crowd scenes with some of the composer’s most rhythmically exciting, cacophonous writing, to quieter conversations between Aron and Moses that are somewhere between recitative and aria – not really spoken, and not really sung -- again, the contrast only reinforces Schoenberg’s point.

Before that blazing desert comes into view, Vick’s production begins with the black stage curtain with Moses und Aron written in what appears to be white chalk lettering near the bottom edge of the curtain. Each scene is introduced by similar titling that appears in different ways; much later in the production, Moses descends carrying the two stone tablets via a huge metal stairway, lowered from stage right as if disembarking from the QEII, and the words Moses descends from the mountain are inscribed in the same chalk font along the side panel of the stairs.

The notorious golden calf sequence began in the middle of a sort of semi-circular arena, with small square windows, each with a chorus member’s head peeking through to observe the proceedings, like sober judges. The tableau opens with flashbulbs going off, like some mysterious fashion photography shoot, with men in dark sunglasses hurling their female partners’ fur coats to the ground. As the scene progressed, I gradually warmed up to Vick’s vision of voyeurism and consumer excess, not unreasonable metaphors in this context. After this we got a line of men smearing themselves with mud (or feces?), and a scene in which a group of virgins was executed, and with a nifty stage effect: seven or eight slender red ribbons – like rubber bands – stretched completely across the stage from left to right. As the women entered they stood on boxes just high enough to place their heads between the bands. At the appropriate moment in the score, the bands vibrated and the women suddenly dropped their heads, their bodies writhing in ecstatic death throes – slightly abstract but very effective. The dancers then gradually stripped to underwear (perhaps disappointing to those expecting full nudity), but even this had a chic Calvin Klein sleekness mirroring the unease generated by those fur coats. Vick illuminated an orgy more of greed than sex (although that was depicted too), of people with an excess of clothing and a paucity of faith.

As with his recent triumphs in Wozzeck and Lulu, Levine seems to have boundless empathy with this music, playing it with fluidity, romanticism and strength. (With all due respect, I’m still not sure how the musicians follow his hand movements, but that’s another thought-provoking article for another time.) At the curtain call, as many cheers rang out in the house, my euphoria was tempered with the slightly sad feeling that this might be Levine’s final performance of this work -- ever. After all, he’s bound for Boston for part of each season, and as far as the work itself, audiences still seem to blanch at the mere mention of the composer’s name. Two companions with me were fans neither of the opera nor of Schoenberg’s oeuvre in general, but even they were cheering loudly at the end, and a large part of gratitude must go to Levine for showing us that the score is gorgeous. The great Met Orchestra sounded brilliant, dare I add, "as usual," especially noticeable during the striking, glittering music for the golden calf worship. While it’s hard not to take these musicians for granted, the players seem to dispatch opera after opera, night after night, and make it look easy. Given the company’s grueling schedule, their consistent artistry impresses, week after week, and I really haven’t a clue how they do it.

The chorus here had an equally challenging role. Dressed in contemporary costume in shades of black and gray, they were onstage virtually throughout the opera. Whether grouped in small triangular formations or swarming about on rising tiers at the end of Act I, or glimpsed as they stared through a crescent of small windows during the golden calf scene, one is constantly aware of their suspicion, their disbelief, and their willingness to be led about like a group of docile sheep. Vocally they sounded terrific – now singing, now exclaiming – in music that would make many choral ensembles aghast.

About the two stars, little can be said to praise them enough. John Tomlinson, pretty far up in the operatic firmament, was terrific as Moses, and seemed to easily negotiate the seemingly nonstop sprechstimme, Schoenberg’s half-spoken, half-sung passages. Physically he looked the part, with huge gray beard and the face of a man exhausted by the struggle to make sense out of the senseless, to educate those too distracted to be concerned. Philip Langridge, with his tall, sinewy body, was a perfect foil, his beautiful tenor constantly asking, asking, asking – asking questions that cannot be fully answered. The final scene, with the chorus vanished and the stage virtually empty but for the two of them, could have been deathly dull without their expert voices, not to mention a strong directorial hand, but it was ultimately quite moving.

Schoenberg died before completing the third act, but it doesn’t seem really necessary; the two existing ones make a rhapsodic, challenging evening on their own. As the curtain falls and Moses utters his last, "Oh word, thou word that I lack," with the orchestra’s string section in somber unison, I was overcome by this simple sentence that sums up the entire opera. Despite the flood of brilliant music that evokes God, Moses, Aron, Israelites, an orgy, and everyone and everything else, the music is essentially only a messenger. And that is the radical, reflexive idea here: that even this opera itself is probably inadequate to convey the basic unknowability of a higher power. That Schoenberg even attempted to address all of this -- using a multiplicity of techniques in the same piece -- is a bit formidable. He tackles a project with dimensions and implications that are far beyond what most of us can even conceive.

Bruce Hodges




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