Regardless of how you present it, Schoenberg’s philosophical musing on the ineffable nature of the divine in Moses und Aron could never be an easy watch – or, indeed, listen. An attempt to represent the ineffectiveness of representation, its complex ideas and jarring, often anti-musical score make for a show that is in large part just as dry as it sounds. This is not to say that it’s uninteresting or unengaging, however: in fact, the lack of easy entertainment and straightforward answers, along with the work’s literal incompletion, are not so much failures as active refusals to compromise. Through the dogged, unwavering idealism of Moses, the composer channels his own frustration and inability to convey his perfect “idea”, rendering Act II’s closing statement – “O word, you word that I lack” – all the more poignant.
Given all that, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this is a very rarely performed piece: if you’re not already an opera fan, it’s unlikely to win you over. Yet the very rarity of the opportunity to see this show more than made up for this in terms of bums-on-seats, with enthusiasts apparently willing to make the trip out where they perhaps would not normally. This was the busiest I have ever seen the Hippodrome on an opera night, and for good reason: the Welsh National Opera’s current run is only the second ever production of Moses und Aron by a British company, the last one having been originally staged back in 1965.
Based on what I picked up from other audience members, the design (by Anna Viebrock) and direction (Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito) of this new production are quite radically different from the more traditional, Biblical approach taken by its predecessor. Rising effortlessly to the challenges of the piece and making no apologies for its toughness, the WNO get right to the heart of the opera’s central conflict by both offering and denying us concrete representations of Schoenberg’s great “idea”. Here, the contrast between the two brothers, with Moses’s faltering sprechgesang and Aron’s considerably more palatable tenor melodies, is mirrored in the staging of the two acts, with Act I providing a clear, contemporary analogy for the story as effective as any of Aron’s own metaphors and imagery, while Act II, superficially at least, is much more difficult to follow.
Act I is set in a sort of parliamentary chamber or lecture hall, where a white-haired and formally suited Moses is off-set by a profusely sweating Aron in a hoodie and trainers, played impeccably by John Tomlinson and Rainer Trost respectively. Revolution hangs in the air above the oppressed and discontented chorus, who are promised freedom and a better life if they agree to follow the one true God and his servants on Earth, in scenes overlaid with instantly recognisable echoes of the Arab Spring and recent Middle Eastern conflicts. Flamboyant Aron eggs the people on to their “destiny”, setting fire to an Egyptian flag and showing them wondrous “miracles” which, as far as the audience can tell, take shape only in their over-eager imaginations. Moses is unhappy with these tricks and displays that he believes debase the purity of his faith and ideals, but he eventually has no choice but to go along with them, since his own attempts to explain God’s inconceivable power and the reasons why he should be trusted prove futile.
The revolutionary fervour that Aron’s smooth-talking whips up in the people is the zenith of the show’s action: by comparison, the frenzied orgy promised in Act II is (to steal a term used by a fellow audience member during the post-show discussion) something of a “damp squib”. Rather than a barbaric mess of sex and violence around a fearsome pagan statue, we’re instead presented with the remarkably unerotic fumblings and pointless fisticuffs of a bunch of bored teenagers in the darkness of a cinema. Their “golden calf” is an apparently graphic movie whose content we can only guess at: as the audience watches the crowd onstage gazing back at them, they see the reflection of their own restlessness. The refusal of Wieler and Morabito to show us what they’re seeing or to gratify our senses has much the same effect on the audience as Moses’s similar resistance to visual representations and simple answers has on the Israelites. Like them, we’re left frustrated at the invisible, impalpable nature of the idea we’re being presented with, wondering when Moses will return to lead us out of this wilderness. Even the so-called orgy offers no relief: Aron’s permission of the indulgence of baser instincts is clearly not the right solution to the problem, a conclusion that both Moses and Schoenberg would doubtless appreciate.
There’s plenty of contemporary political commentary woven throughout the show: the rashness and disorganisation that are all too common in times of protest and revolution, the renewed restlessness, power vacuums and vulnerability often left in the wake of uprisings, the political naivety of the young and uneducated, and their uncertainty about what it is they actually want are all cleverly and subtly tackled. More obviously, of course, there’s also the out-of-touch intellectualism of would-be leaders and idealists, contrasted with the slippery real politik of rabble-rousers and “people’s politicians” who tend to fuel and feed on ignorance. Needless to say, neither of these seem like particularly appealing options, though no clear alternative is presented.
This is definitely not a show for anyone who’s after a night of easy entertainment, but if you want something to really make you think, then make sure you catch this in London next month: after all, it could be another 50 years before a new production comes along!