Cher Public

Words and music

As is happening increasingly in opera productions today (e.g., the Rosenkavalier in Stuttgart), the action of Moses und Aron at the Komische Oper begins some minutes before the music does. In this Barrie Kosky staging, we begin by seeing what appear to be dots and slashes blinking on the black front scrim. Gradually these shapes seem to resolve themselves into characters, words, phrases, and humans being human, we are trying to find a pattern and a message among the randomness. When that message finally presents itself, it’s not at all what you might expect, at least not in connection with this opera.

In fact, what appears as an unlikely motto is an exchange of lines from Waiting for Godot:

ESTRAGON: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
VLADIMIR: Yes yes, we’re magicians.

And at least the beginning scenes of the opera have a strong Beckettian tang. The curtain rises to reveal an ambiguous interior space suggesting a public area of a theater. A low ceiling is pierced by skylights (or perhaps circular lighting fixtures) and a series of shallow risers extend upstage into semidarkness where the foot of a broad staircase can be glimpsed. Curiously, the floors are covered with threadbare Persian rugs.

One of the carpets unrolls itself, revealing a middle-aged man in tatty, worn evening clothes: this is Moses. Bass-baritone Robert Hayward (surely at Kosky’s behest) takes very literally the line “Meine Zunge is ungelenk,” not so much stuttering as having a sort of momentary episode of panic every time he tries to utter one of the adjectives describing God. The Voice of the Burning Bush is heard—from singers distributed around the circumference of the auditorium, so the sound seems to come from everywhere and nowhere—commanding Moses to remove his shoes, which he sets aside only an instant before they burst into flame and—apparently under their own power—stroll offstage.

From nowhere a walking cane appears in Moses’ hand, then vanishes again, then reappears. It obviously a prop, not genuinely magical at all, and Moses seems to be performing these tricks involuntarily, accidentally. When Aron (tenor John Daszak) arrives, he’s sporting a crisp white dinner jacket and electric-blue slacks, like a cruise ship compère. His handling of the magical illusions is a lot more expert than his brother’s, and we realize that, at least from Aron’s point of view, he’s the star of this downmarket vaudeville act, with Moses as a stooge or fall guy.

So Aron’s slick words of exegesis are in this context mere razzle-dazzle: something to catch the attention of an audience not really capable of understanding Moses’ (by definition) ungraspable idea of God. He does a whole routine with a “floating” cane, and either by accident or design, the thread is visible.

The people arrive in a frightening mass: the chorus of the Komische Oper has been augmented by members of the Vocalconsort Berlin to 100 strong, and the whole throng comes pouring down that upstage staircase, filling the whole front section of the set. The sense of boundless numbers is enhanced by very busy choreographed movement, shoving from one side of the stage to the other and waving their arms about, sometimes in unison and other times in intricate patterns. They are dressed in everyday clothing, like what you might expect to see office workers in, so ordinary as to seem almost anonymous.

The working of the various miracles (or, in this context, “miracles”) falls to the expert Aron: he produces brightly-colored silks, directs Moses in “healing” his leprous hand (obviously a glove, but when exactly did he take it off ?), and then produces a glass of water which Moses drinks and then immediately vomits back up as blood.

There is no intermission, just the lowering of the front curtain leaving only Moses visible. In silence, he does an oddly disturbing little magic act, producing a scarf adorned with the Star of David, vanishing the scarf, and then producing it again, but this time as plain white silk. Back and forth he goes: Jew, not a Jew, Jew, not a Jew. The implication, I think, is that this uncertainty about his identity is what has kept Moses on Mount Sinai for those long 40 days and nights.

The earlier energy of the crowd is greatly surpassed in the “Wo ist Moses” chorus; I really thought those singers were going to hurt themselves with all that jumping and flailing, but in fact they not only survived but sang the overlapping lines with pinpoint precision. Aron turns blasphemous really quickly, summoning the Elders to prostrate themselves at his feet. The crowd strip off their watches and jewelry, piling it all into an old woman’s hat, and she dutifully shuffles offstage with the trinkets as the Calf of Gold rises on a stage elevator.

The Calf, though, is not a statue but rather a dancer dressed as a showgirl, in a plumed headdress, a stylized belly dancing costume and gold body paint. As she begins to gyrate, Aron turns the crank on an old-fashioned movie camera which projects a flickering strobe light onto the dancer. Somehow the light seems to bleach the hue from the dancer and everything around, creating a sepia image recalling silent film.

Unexpectedly, the “worship” of the Calf is, at least to begin with, rather prim: the showgirl is joined by three chorus boys in similar drag and they twitch through a union routine in a line downstage while the crowd retreats into darkness. Odd figures of cartoonish fat men lumber on and foxtrot with each other, and Aron is joined by little people made up as caricatures of Freud, Karl Marx and some other figures I didn’t immediately recognize. The crowd returns, this time carrying life-size dummies in front of them. These figures, at least the ones most plainly in view are dressed in explicitly Jewish-signifying clothing (kippot and tallitot, etc.)

The various soloists such as the Naked Youth peer out from around their dummies to sing their lines: there is no suggestion of realism at this point. However, the elderly woman who earlier collected the gold returns in a bedraggled version of the showgirl headdress, topless and smeared with gold paint. She freezes downstage just off center in a silent scream.

Now the action shifts from tame to utterly disturbing: the crowd begin to pummel and tear apart the dummies, flinging them in a vast heap until most of the stage seems to be covered with disfigured bodies. The allusion to the Holocaust is both explicit and grimly powerful. When there is nothing left onstage but a pile of corpses, we hear from a distance the scream, “Moses steigt vom Berg herab!” But the mountain the prophet descends from is a mountain of dead Jews; he can hardly keep his balance as he clambers over the tangle of limbs.

And Moses is not carrying tablets; rather, the Commandments have been inscribed into his very flesh, great bleeding gashes across his chest and back. Hayward is now naked but for boxer shorts, and Moses seems to be in a state of shock. The smashing of the tablets takes the form of a clumsily bungled suicide attempt. There are no people left alive to follow the pillar of fire except for Aron, who leaves Moses alone. “O Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt!” sobs the maimed old man, who then wraps himself in a carpet and lies still. The curtain falls very slowly indeed, and even after the theater was completely dark, it took a minute before the applause tentatively began.

Moses und Aron is always a rather grim work, but this production dared to be more pessimistic than most. The reference to Godot seems to amplify the sense of futility in the piece, suggesting that Moses’ notion of God as incomprehensible, inexplicable idea was from the outset doomed to failure, and, by extension, that perhaps any kind of religion is by its very nature absurd and unworkable. What is left is a struggle with the concept of Jewish identity: for instance, was Arnold Schoenberg a Jew at birth? Was he still a Jew when he converted to Protestantism at age 24, or did he “return” to being a Jew in 1933?

Dramatically this was superbly disturbing, and honestly I have been turning this production over in my head almost since last Sunday night. Musically it was on if anything an even higher level, absolutely magnificent conducting by Vladimir Jurowski. His take on the work paradoxically combined transparent detail and shattering force; it seemed to hover right on the cusp between music and noise without ever crossing over. Nothing felt formal, but everything was perfectly, immaculately in place.

What’s more, the whole score had a sweetness and clarity, an almost Schubert-like feeling, but again without blurring or softening the harmonies or orchestral colors. This had the boldness only a star performance can offer: utterly personal and yet utterly convincing. (The only other real star performance I saw during my week in Germany was Valer Sabadus as Xerxes, though that was a different sort of case because the whole concept of that production was that the performer was a star. So I can’t swear that Sabadus would always deliver a star performance, but Jurowski I think we can count on to dazzle on every occasion.)

Hayward had the advantage in playing Moses of actually having a strong voice that he kept in check instead of what often happens in this opera, casting a singer who no longer can sing. The bigness of his Sprechstimme, louder most of the time than anyone else’s singing, conveyed a sense of majesty despite the down-at-heel persona he was assigned in this production. I personally prefer a more glamorous tone for Aron than Daszak summoned, but his insouciant ease in this terrifying music was just right. (He also has a great look for Aron, one of those open “actor” faces that seem, deceivingly, so sincere.)

The casting of the smaller roles is a testament to the Komische Oper’s repertory system: the Naked Youth, Michael Pflumm, is also the second cast Tony in West Side Story, and the Young Maiden, Julia Giebel, had sung Celia in Lucio Silla the night before!

As with the Herheim productions earlier in the Regietournee, I really do long to see this Moses at least once more, not only to catch more detail but simply because it was an experience so sublime as to bear repetition. Or, to put it another way, before I saw this production, I respected Moses und Aron; now I’m fascinated by it.

Photos: Monika Rittershaus

  • aulus agerius

    Even the recent Don Carlo in Philadelphia began with some messing around on the stage in silence before the brass began.

  • Fluffy-net

    I regret that I have not been able to see this. I hope they bring it back, but fear that might not happen (extra singers etc). My memory of the work is a snooze of a production at the Met about 15 years ago and a dynamite afternoon at a concert performance by the Chicago Symphony in the early 70’s. Margaret Hillis’s chorus screamed, shouted, and carried on perfectly on pitch. The whole afternoon is burned in my mind.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      The KO production sounds absolutely fabulous. I’ll never forget attending the dress rehearsal of the CSO concert you mentioned. The chorus soloist who shouted “Here com’ Moses, commin down de mountain!” had a thick Afro-American accent worthy of the best gospel choirs. Unfortunately people started laughing, but it was very funny in the midst of all the Schönbergian complexities.

    • turings

      I think they’ve said they won’t be bringing it back, Fluffy-net. The last performance is the 7th of July, and it is almost sold out too.

  • phoenix

    Thanks very much for going over there and bringing this back. Moses und Aron is a long-time favorite of mine ever since I first saw it in Germany many years ago. No offence intended to the greatness of Kosky’s staging, but I would be satisfied with even a good sounding audio CD of this performance.

  • Camille

    Question: This may have been a fantastic spettacolo but did any of it at all correspond to the very specific stage directions which went into great detail that Arnold Schoenberg* carefully notated in his score, including stage placement, lighting colours and cues, etc.?

    Because these are not merely suggestions on Schoenberg’s part but actual composed elements of this particular magnum opus. I mean, they certainly did not observe much of these indications in the Met’s revival so it would not be uncommon but might it not be interesting to hear and see what was so carefully and precisely notated in the first place?

    Glad, however, that JJ is having a great time and enjoying himself after a long hard slog through this less than brilliant past season.

    *Sorry for the California spelling of Arnie’s name but I grew up with it this way, just as I grew up with the fully fleshed-out version of Verklärte Nacht, so it can’t be helped, alas.

    • There is at least one Glückliche Hand out there that works on recreating Schönberg’s colored lighting scheme, for what it’s worth.

      There is a piece by Gubaidulina with very detailed colored-licht regie. I talked with a lighting designer about it. He said, “Yeah, we tried it. Too many cues. It ended up making the stage look like a disco.”

      • Camille

        *”Disco Golden Calf”??

        Yeah, of course there is a Glûckliche Hand but that is mighty small potatoes in comparison and having no idea if Mme Gubaidulina had anywhere the experince with the stage that Arnie had by the time he plotted this all out so meticulously would not know if this is a valid or false analogy. The fact he was also at least something of a painter may have helped him in his deliberations, at least with the colours.

        Why don’t they do something with that damn fugly Von heute auf morgen, instead? Needs work!

        *After the opera is over the audience would/should/could be invited up on the stage to do the frug, belly dance, or even would be encouraged to pole dance, if they dare.
        Clothes optional

        • I actually prefer the wacky Gluckliche Hand to the self-pitying earnestness of Moses. After Von heute auf morgen (which really is kind of the pits) it is my least favorite Schoenberg score. The orchestral variations come in third to last.* I’d rather Schoenberg had devoted the energy to finishing Die Jakobsleiter.

          *N.B. Least favorite Schoenberg score still much better than anything by, say, Korngold.

          • phoenix

            m. croche, I disagree with you. Jakobsleiter I do not cherish, but Moses und Aron is the great masterpiece.
            -- Schonberg’s musically perfect gem Die Glückliche Hand I only heard once, in broadcast from Cieza’s alma mater Staatsoper Stuttgart, performance from 11 March 2012 with Sylvain Cambreling conducting Shigeo Ishino as Der Mann, on a double bill with an excellent performance of Janacek’s Osud. Both have gotten quite a few listens by me. Osud & Cunning Little Vixen are my favorite Janacek operas.

          • Oh, I forgot to add the Drei Satiren, op. 28 to this list. That’s where the trouble all started. Schoenberg emerged from a long public silence as a composer around shortly before and was stunned at how the world had changed around him. He, unwisely, put his punditry in his music.

            I just don’t find Schoenberg that appealing when he is trying to be a public intellectual and Kulturkaempfer. Ode to Napoleon is saved by the fact that he didn’t write the text. The only one of his “public” pieces that, for me, really works, is “Survivor from Warsaw” -- though perhaps that piece might be regarded now as exploitative.

            But after he set aside “Moses und Aron”, Schoenberg crafted these wonderful works where there’s not a note too many, that are packed with feeling, and are marvels of construction: the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Quartet, the Piano Concerto, the String Trio, the Phantasy for violin & piano. These works, I think, constitute the best part of the composer’s legacy from the year 1930 onwards.

            • Camille

              Hello crochie-pie,
              Thanks for the further — I do love that trio very much meself -- much as I do not love the Warsaw Survivor!

              Am tired now as I just returned from the Disco und ich muss schlafen.
              Bis später und danke.

          • phoenix

            m. croce e delizia, delizia al cor --
            re: Korngold (and your other nemesis, Zandonai). To each our own tastes. As far as the musical structure of their two respective masterpieces, tote Stadt & Francesca da Rimini, I find them no worse than nozze di Figaro or Reimann’s Lear. What I suspect ‘puts you off’ about them is their musical style, the soundworld created from each -- which is precisely the reason I am fascinated with them. I am only going by my own feelings about the soundworlds of Nozze & Lear, which I don’t care for at all.
            -- Seriously, I am grateful you and I have lived so long yet are still able to get over here -- you have so many interesting comments.

            • Henry Holland

              Well, I love Moses und Aron and Die Tote Stadt and Lear and Le Nozze di Figaro (I think it’s Mozart’s masterpiece), Francesca di Rimini not so much.

              What I find is that I like certain periods of each of those composers output, not the whole lot (there’s no composer that applies to for me).

              I love Schoenberg early late-Romantic stuff (hearing Gurrelieder live was mind-blowing), the atonal stuff (Erwartung and 5 Orchestral Pieces especially), some of the early 12-tone stuff and Moses und Aron, but interest wanes sharply after that for me, his music becomes too “dry” and “academic” for me.

              Korngold, wow. He was the last child prodigy, the fact he wrote the fantastic Violanta when he was still a teenager is incredible. Die Tote Stadt is my favorite opera and I enjoy Der Ring des Polykrates and (with reservations) Das Wunder der Heliane too. He simply seemed to run out of ideas after Heliane, though I love the Symphony in F. He was, of course, one of the very first great film composers, my favorite is for the fantastic Michael Curtiz film The Sea Wolf with Edgar G. Robinson, John Garfield, Ida Lupino and sexy as hell Alexander Knox.

              I’ve heard all of Reimann’s operas, besides Lear, I really like Ein Traumspiel (saw a great production of it in San Francisco), Melusine and the recent Medea. I’m not a big fan of the orchestral music of his I’ve heard, but his Requiem is a fine setting.

              And so on and so forth.

  • Cicciabella

    In the spirit of La Cieca’s European Regie spree, I’d like to point young opera fans living in or travelling to Europe in the direction of Opass: 5 performances in participating European theatres for 90 euros. The selection of performances is limited or interesting, depending on where you live or roam, and you have to be under 31 to qualify. Details on the website: http://www.opass.eu/practicalities.asp.

  • manou

    I saw the Welsh National Opera Moses und Aron which seems to be the antithesis of the Kosky staging. (And yes, John Tom, if not quite “a singer who no longer can sing” is definitely no longer at the height of his powers).

    Here is the trailer, which gives the flavour of the staging:

    • Camille

      Yes, we saw him in the production here and Monsieur C. complained vociferously about him singing far too MUCH, so I fear the fellow is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

  • zinka

    For some reason I no longer can get into the “Off-topic” page..The BOSS said…go elsewhere so I am going to use the first entry always..I hope this is Ok…I do not want to be off my roc..I mean TOPIC

    http://jacklivigni.com/mos/

    This is link to the beloved Nelly Miricioioioiou Summer classes…..

  • As I understand it (not always reliably) Paris’s 2015 production by Romeo Castellucci will be brand new, i.e. will not have been staged elsewhere beforehand. It goes on to Madrid in 2016.

    Moses is Thomas Johannes Mayer, Aron is John Graham-Hall and Jordan will conduct.

  • turings

    Anyone else watching the livestream of Pop meets Opera from Vienna? Very Eurovision :)

  • pasavant

    Sounds hilarious. Glad to see they are keeping the Komische in Komische Oper.

  • zinka

    As I said…..CANNOT post on off-topic section…so,with permission from the Almighty..here is the new one.

    Zinka and Nilsson May 17..Zinka is 1906 and Nilsson is 1918..What a good mood the vocal Gods must have been in.
    This clip..after 10000 times, it still floors me. Now we know why in standing room I looked only at the stage….

  • “Moses und Aron” production concept:

    The curtain rises before the music begins. We see Allan Bloom in his University of Chicago office. He is writing “The Closing of the American Mind”. He takes a short break, and pulls out a couple male physique magazines from his desk drawer. He lingers as he turns the pages. The cover model on one will resemble the singer portraying Aron.

    He sets the magazines down and returns to work. He dozes off while typing out something about kids these days and their Walkmans.

    The music starts. His dream is the opera.

  • Liz.S

    This is one of many reviews of yours I will remember for a long time.
    I love you, LaC, thank you, thank you, and thank you!