DISC OF THE MONTH
Moses und Aron, Schoenberg
Ilse Eerens (Young girl), Karolina Gumos (Invalid), Ilse Eerens, Hanna Herfurtner, Karolina Gumos, Constance Heller (Four naked virgins), Andreas Conrad (Aron), Finnur Bjarnason (Young man/Youth), Michael Smallwood (Naked youth), Boris Grappe (Another man/Ephraimite), Dale Duesing (Moses), Renatus Mészár (Priest), ChorWerk Ruhr, Bochumer Symphoniker, c. Michael Boder, p. Willy Decker, d. Wolfgang Gussmann and Susana Mendoza, video director Hannes Rossacher. EuroArts DVD 2058178 (106 minutes)
Moses und Aron is one of music’s impossible objects. Composed in the early 1930s shortly before Schoenberg fled from the rising threat of Nazism, the opera—itself seemingly in a permanent state of flight—rests on conundrums. The first of these is the work’s embrace of the tragic impossibility of telling its own story: the story of an idea (Moses’s single, ‘unimaginable’ deity) for which there are in principle no words, sounds or images. The second is Schoenberg’s commitment to communicating this impossibility by means of the 12-tone method, the musical idiom that (in order to be ‘true’) systematically denaturalizes its own language and makes easy communication with its audience a further impossibility. A third conundrum is fortuitous but appropriate: how to mount a work that was never completed, and whose composer was unsure even about whether opera was the genre appropriate to its idea.
The achievement of this new DVD—a live recording from the 2009 Ruhr Triennale—is that it brings this impossible object viscerally to life, in a marvellously filmed account of a production the technical virtuosity of which at once emphasizes the conundrums and actively thrusts the audience into their inner reaches. The production’s first coup is its setting—not a conventional opera house, but the huge steel structure that is the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum. From the start the film draws the viewer into the spaces reclaimed from the gas plant that for more than 60 years provided energy for the city’s coal and steel industries (the building was redesigned as an art venue in 2003). The audience is seated on a pair of sharply raked stands, each on its own movable platform; the stage is the space that opens up when the stands, closely facing each other at the start, are rolled silently apart, the distance between them opening or closing throughout the opera, according to dramatic need. There is no pit (nothing is hidden)—the orchestra is on a level stage occupying a third rolling platform, adjacent to the others. Thus the action takes place virtually in the round, and the audience is intimately involved in the proceedings.
Willy Decker’s staging and direction are full of invention—as is the filming, in which the use of multiple cameras, perspectives and proximities enables us to see more than the live audience sees. Wearing modern dress, Moses, Aron and the rest of the cast emerge from among the audience and are often indistinguishable from it; thus the audience becomes the community among whom the drama is played out. On a darkened stage, the use of an enormous scrim cube, lowered periodically over the cast so as to contain them, enables gigantic hologram-like projections: huge serpents, big leprous hands, and an underwater scene, for example.
The solo voices (discreetly amplified) are on the whole marvelloussly focused, strong and confident. Dale Duesing’s powerful, expressive baritone and accomplished acting make for an imposing, credible Moses, an effect enhanced by the film’s use of close-up. And in this ‘modern’ setting he is a middle-aged Moses with a neatly trimmed beard, who clearly works out. Andreas Conrad’s Aron is finely served by his good looks and sensuously ringing tenor, notwithstanding a slight tendency to strain at times. The members of the young ChorWerk Ruhr excel, not only in the assurance with which they sing the formidably difficult, multi-layered and almost omnipresent choral music, but also for vibrant, dramatic participation which is a joy to watch. They are shockingly effective in the sacrificial scene of Act 2, a naked bloodfest that gives superb expression to the (intentionally) grotesque carnality of Schoenberg’s music. Michael Boder conducts the Bochumer Symphoniker with grace and an easy sense of style, projecting a richly coloured account of the orchestral score. Strongly recommended.