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Recordings

Arnold Schoenberg: Moses und Aron
04 Jun 2008

SCHOENBERG: Moses und Aron

Even though it is one of the important operas of the twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is, perhaps, more esteemed than performed.

Arnold Schoenberg: Moses und Aron

Franz Grundheber (Moses); Thomas Moser (Aron); Ildikó Raimondo (Ein junges Mädchen); Janina Baechle (Eine Kranke); Peter Jelosits (Ein junger Mann, Jüngling); Morten Frank Larsen (Ein anderer Mann); Georg Tichy (Ephraimit); Alexandru Moisiuc (Ein Priester). Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. Slovak Philharmonic Chorus. Daniele Gatti, conductor.

Arthaus 101259 [DVD]

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Yet the recently issued DVD of a 2006 production from Vienna demonstrates the power of this work onstage. With the excellent visual dimension, this recording differs from CDs in bringing forth the drama that the composer intended.

The almost legendary two-act torso of Moses und Aron is significant not only for the music it contains in the existing fragment and also for what its composer could have composed for the third act. Such antimonies make the work attractive and also leave the door open for various conceptions of the work on stage. In this relatively recent production of the Vienna Staatsoper that was given in 2006 and subsequently broadcast on Austrian television as a presentation of the ORF, stage director Reto Nickler combines modern dress with elements traditionally associated with the story of Moses. In doing so, Nickler was able to amplify the meaning of certain symbols, such as Moses’s staff by using a video project of it on stage and thus, accentuating its significance. In using a modern, sometimes abstract setting, Nickler also avoided the sand-and-sandal production and, instead, arrived at a setting that allows the audience to focus on the actors on stage and their music. Without sets that sometimes dwarf the performers, the drama emerges readily from the interactions between human characters in this opera of ideas about the nature of God as expressed by the central figure of Judaism, Moses.

While a number of fine recordings of Moses und Aron exist, this unique DVD of the opera makes a staging of the work accessible, with a variety of camera angle, including a judicious mixture of close-ups and longer shots of the stage. The recording is all the more remarkable for its origins in a live performance, since audience sounds are almost negligible in the DVD. It is an exemplary presentation that merits attention for conveying the opera well. With the stage details intact, and the wide-angle shots planned to make the best use of the stagecraft, the Nickler production, prepeared for television by Claus Viller, is a fine example of filmed opera. The sound is quite fine and brings across the nuanced direction of Daniele Gatti, whose efforts join the ranks of other fine interpreters of this work, including Pierre Boulez and Georg Solti.

The principals involved with this production, namely Franz Grundheber as Moses and Thomas Moser as Aron offer excellent interpretations of their respective roles. The sense of line overrides the tightly organized dodecaphonic structure as both singers convey not only the musical character of their lines but also the meaning of the text as a dramatic work. Grundheber is particularly effective in giving the role a physical presence: he is singing as Moses, not performing at the role in a studied fashion. Likewise, Moser’s portrayal of Aron not only serves as foil for Moses, but supports his brother on stage, as he becomes as his character states, the word and deed of the ideas that Moses espouses. If Aron is, at times, at odds with Moses, the resulting duality from these two strong musicians is worth watching on stage, especially in the famous scene where Aron has snatched Moses’s rod and becomes the erstwhile leader of the Hebrews, who are still trying to grasp the spiritually present god who communicates with Moses. With the two principal characters performed so convincingly, it is no wonder that the production was presented on television and preserved on DVD.

Equally convincing are the secondary roles, which emerge facilely from the chorus. At times impassioned, the choral sound is as solid as the finely balanced orchestra, and brings out the carefully constructing writing Schoenberg brought to this work with the chorus becoming, at times, an additional role in the opera. These qualities are present in the scene with the Golden Calf, which becomes here an excellent portrayal of the Hebrews as a people whose response to doubt and fear is exactly what Moses was trying to address by bringing his God to his people. Nickler did not present the scene with the kind of decadence some directors use for the temple scene in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, but rather used costumes to denote this aspect of the scene. Likewise, the three-dimensional idol-like presentation of self-interest as found in the work “Ich” (“I”) is at once an apt reference to Freud and a fitting focus of the scene. With Aron as a kind of emcee, this rendering of the scene adds a modern commentary to the idolatry implicit in the text and, of course, explicit in the well-known story. At the same time, the masterful performance of the instrumental interlude contributes to the overall effect of profanation, an idea which remains at odds with the narrative about Moses’s efforts to bring his people closer to the transcendent deity. The impact is stronger later in the scene, when the Israelite men enter with human-size letters that spell out “Ich bin Gott” (“I am God”). The scene dissolves into violence that conflicts with the ideals expressed earlier in the work, and the chorus is commendable in conveying that mood effectively.

When he returns, Moses is not the angry Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments who hurls the tablets to the ground. Neither is he carrying the tablets, but is yoked by them, with the placards balanced around his neck. His exchange with Aron is intense for its intimacy, and in this production, the two characters emerge as complementary figures, who diverge not by opposing ideas, but different means of expressing their faithfulness to their people. Only when this emerges in the text does Moses attempt to break the tablets and the stylized gestures that accompaniment that seen fit the gestural music that accompanies the scene. The dissonance that is part of this culminating moment in the opera is not strictly tonal, but in this performance emerges as conflicting textures.

Since this is a torso, the performance itself ends where Schoenberg left the work, at the end of Act 2. This DVD includes a reading of the third act, which the composer had completed in libretto. Rendered by Grundheber, this portion of the work is not always available in audio recordings, even though it is an essential part of the legacy of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron as the basis for the concluding act. Beyond this addition, the DVD itself includes an exemplary booklet that augments the visual presentation, which includes subtitles in French, Spanish, Italian, and English. This production of Moses und Aron is outstanding, and it is fortunate to have it preserved in DVD so that those who may be familiar with the music alone through CDs or radio broadcasts can see an effective performance of the work on stage.

James L. Zychowicz

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