Sunday, 27 July 2014

Shimmering magic - Schoenberg's Moses und Aron

Schoenberg Moses und Aron - John Tomlinson and WNO chorus - WNO; photo Bill Cooper
John Tomlinson and chorus
photo Bill Cooper
Schoenberg Moses und Aron; John Tomlinson, Rainer Trost, Welsh National Opera, conductor Lothar Konigs; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 25 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Stunning performances in the first London staging of Schoenberg's opera for nearly 40 years

Eighty years after its creation, and sixty years after its premiere, Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aron is still something of a rarity on the London operatic stage. Whereas Berg's Lulu and Wozzeck have become almost regular visitors, Moses und Aron was last seen in London nearly 40 years ago. So it was a great tribute to David Pountney and Welsh National Opera that they were the ones bringing the opera to the Royal Opera House. WNO's performances there (we saw it on 25 July 2014) are part of a short tour, to Birmingham, Cardiff and London. The production, directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, comes from Stuttgart Opera and was revived by Jorg Beher, with designs based on original designs by Anna Viebrock, and lighting by Tim Mitchell. John Tomlinson was Moses, Rainer Trost was Aron with Lothar Koenigs conducting the chorus, extra chorus and orchestra of Welsh National Opera. The production originated in Stuttgart in 2003, when it was also conducted by Lothar Koenigs.


The setting was contemporary, an auditorium which could have been somewhere like the United Nations or a parliament and there were hints that this might be Middle Eastern. But it was firmly today, the curtain was up when we entered with John Tomlinson's Moses wandering around at the back. And at the end, the curtain never went down, clearly in Wieler and Morabito's view the Israelites are us. The production takes a thoughtful, side-long view of the opera, ignoring the Biblical resonances and presenting it as a sort of modern parable. In act one, there were no miracles, instead Aron used analogies and parables. Thankfull Wieler and Morabito explicitly did not preach, but this meant that you were never quite sure what they were aiming at. This was one of those productions where having a statement from the directors in the programme would have been useful.

Schoenberg Moses und Aron - Rainer Trost - WNO; photo Bill Cooper
Rainer Trost
photo Bill Cooper
Needless to say, there was no golden calf and precious little orgy. In act two the auditorium had become transformed into a cinema like space and Aron's golden calf was a film. We never saw the film, but from the stage audience's reaction it was a porn film. The resulting orgy was tame by theatrical standards, but probably relatively realistic (in real life, few people are really exhibitionist) and there was no sacrifice, just a bit of random violence. It was an interesting idea, one that conceptually worked. But the problem was that visually it was completely uninteresting, perhaps crucially no choreographer was credited. Wieler and Morabito did not replace the potential choreographed orgy with anything more striking. Instead we watched people reacting. And concentrated on Schoenberg's music. Perhaps that was the point, because both the performance and music was stunning.

One thing that I had not realised, was quite how beautiful Schoenberg's score could be. The opening, with off-stage voices singing God's words and John Tomlinson's Moses alone on stage, was simply magical. This continued throughout the act, with some lovely transparent textures and finely expressive performances. Koenigs and his orchestra really made Schoenberg's orchestrations shimmer. The problem, musically, is that Schoenberg seemed to have nowhere to go, so that the music for the first act did not develop, it simply circled round. But given the expressive beauty, that was a small price. Whilst act one is dominated by Moses and Aron, act two is given over to the chorus and orchestra, and here we had some wonderfully evocative moments, stunningly immaculately sung and played. Listening to WNO's forces, you almost didn't need a staging at all (perhaps that's the work's problem).

Moses was John Tomlinson in shaggy prophet mode. Long hair, suit but with a hole in his socks. Vivid in the way he projected the sprech-stimme. Tomlinson has always been a singer who was sensitive to text and he has always projected it, whatever the role, so that this role seemed made for him. He was highly self-involved and completely believable as the visionary who struggles to explain his vision, shocked at the end that the people are unable to make the journey that he has made.

Rainer Trost's Aron was very chav-like, a character from a TV soap and far less the intellectual than I had thought he might be. Dramatically I found it slightly unconvincing, I was never sure who Aron was and why he was doing things. But musically Trost was superb, singing the complex vocal lines with power and flexibility, making Schoenberg's awkward sequences seem completely lyrical.

The other smaller roles were well taken, but it was difficult to work out who was whom. Richard Wiegold as a priest stood out as one slightly apart, trenchant in his pronouncements. the other admirable performers were Elizabeth Atherton, Alexander Sprague, Daniel Grice, Julian Boyce, Laurence Cole, Alastair Moore, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Edmond Choo, Fiona Harrison and Louise Ratcliffe.

But the real heroes of the evening were the chorus and orchestra under Lothar Koenigs, who performed the score as if it was second nature and made Schoenberg's complex textures seem natural and expressive, logical and passionate. Chorus master Stephen Harris says on the WNO website that the learning process for the chorus will have taken 18 months. There was no sense of difficulty or complexity, simply expressive and magical textures.




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