Let’s be honest: no-one turns to Moses und Aron for a
little light relief. It’s hard going, even for those who know
it well, and while it has had strong outings on CD from, say,
Solti and Boulez, it requires a lot of effort from the listener.
It’s one of those works which, more so than most operas, benefits
from seeing as well as hearing, so DVD is a perfect format for
it and for a work so cerebral and philosophical it is right
and proper to see it in a production like that presented here.
Schoenberg is a composer I admire rather than love, but I found
this DVD an utterly gripping experience that shed new light
on this often perplexing score and led me to reassess it as
a work that speaks powerfully to us today.
Leaving aside the difficulty (for want of a better word) of its serialist music, the main issue with Moses is that the story is not really what it is “about”. The sequences of narrative, familiar from the book of Exodus, take a back seat to the often intense philosophical discussions that permeate the text. Borne of Schoenberg’s own problems in communicating with his god, the work is essentially about the difficulty of identifying with a concept so infinite and unquantifiable as God. The character of Moses defines God from the outset as being “eternal, omnipresent, invisible, unimaginable”, but Aron and the Israelites are uncomfortable with this undefinable notion – God is often referred to as Moses’ “idea” – and this ultimately leads to the episode with the Golden Calf, the ultimate expression of God as an object. Director Willy Decker puts this dichotomy squarely at the centre of his production. When Aron first meets Moses in the desert, after the episode of the Burning Bush, he uses Moses’ staff as a giant paintbrush to draw images on the floor of the stage, already trying to pin down the indescribable. The Golden Calf itself is projected as an image before the three-dimensional one appears, and when it does Aron and the chorus of Israelites draw, write and scribble all over the calf and the floor surrounding it. Upon descending from the mountain Moses drags a giant sheet of paper on which are written the Ten Commandments; the sheet is then torn to pieces by Moses and the Israelites. Decker’s concept of making concrete the central conflict of the drama is not only helpful to the viewer but it gives us visual themes to follow as the production unfolds and lends it uncanny power.
In fact, Decker’s use of the physical space is a tour-de-force throughout. The opera is performed in what appears to be an enormous warehouse. The audience sit in tiered seating facing one another and, at the beginning, the performers are scattered among the audience. The two banks of seating gradually pull apart so that the action takes place in the midst of the audience, something that must have made the live experience tremendously involving. The orchestra perform on a platform at one end of this space and during the entrance of the Golden Calf the entire orchestra is moved from one end of the stage to the other as the calf is paraded through their midst. Decker spares us none of the violence or degradation of the orgiastic dance around the calf: I don’t remember ever seeing so much nudity or such widespread use of blood on an operatic stage, and the spectacle is at once thrilling and terrifying to watch. The cameras, and there must have been many of them, are in all the right places at once and the DTS sound is fantastic, creating a real sense of space and the movement of the characters within it.
The performances, both individual and collective, are excellent. Dale Duesing barely sings throughout the whole evening, but his declamatory use of Sprechgesang sets his character apart from the world of those around him and he gives the role a craggy grandeur that is very impressive. Andreas Conrad is rather dark for a tenor and he perhaps isn’t as ideally agile as one would like Aron to be, but he carries plenty of presence and he is a good foil for Duesing. Perhaps the most outstanding performance of the evening, however, comes from the chorus, such a vital part of this work. The demands Schoenberg makes of them are formidable but they rise to them with passionate commitment, be they singing their sordid hymn to the calf or playing the spooky voice of the burning bush at the beginning. They are also fantastic actors and they throw themselves into their collective frenzies, naked or otherwise, with abandon. Piloting the whole ship, Michael Boder ensures that the music never gets out of control and his orchestra play brilliantly.
As far as I can see there is only one other DVD of Moses on the market: Daniele Gatti’s Vienna production. I haven’t seen it, but I was so utterly convinced by this one that I won’t be rushing to acquire it. This is an altogether outstanding release: a thumping, exciting, visceral experience, but a challenge too and something any serious music lover should rise to.