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SCHÖNBERG: Moses und Aron

DVD Button Graham-Hall, Mayer; Orchestra and Chorus of the Paris Opera, Jordan. Production: Castellucci. BelAir Classiques BAC439 (Blu-ray)/BAC136 (DVD), 113 mins., subtitled

RECORDING Moses und Aron DVD Cover 1017
Critics Choice Button 1015

ARNOLD SCHÖNBERG'S MOSES struggles with bringing an unseeable God to a people demanding to see him. Director/designer Romeo Castellucci, in Act I of his austerely handsome 2015 Paris Opera production, turns that idea into image. Moses and Aron’s initial encounter with the Hebrews unfolds in a dense fog. The people, behind a heavy scrim, are enshrouded in white robes and furry hoods that obscure their bodies and faces. The resulting stage picture is all but unreadable—an undulating white landscape that suggests the deity morphing from inchoate concept to present reality in his people’s lives. (The prevailing opacity occasionally makes for a frustrating video experience—at times, it’s like looking at a blank screen—but it must have packed a wallop in the theater.) Only when the crowd embraces Moses’s God do they throw their hoods off and emerge as a human mass; they don’t take shape as a people until they have accepted the word of God.

A few concrete artifacts punctuate the haze. The Burning Bush is a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder suspended over the stage, unspooling its message and covering Moses with magnetic tape—the “word” that God charges him with bringing to the people. A haunting premonition of the Golden Calf appears to him; in Act II, it becomes clear that this is a live, 3,000-pound ox. An H. R. Giger-esque contraption delivers the marvels that Moses uses to convince his people of God’s power. Through it all, a crazy salad of nouns (“HORIZON,” “IDÉE,” “PERVERSITÉ”) flashes on the screen, as if illustrating Moses’s effort to render the idea of God into words. 

In the second of Moses und Aron’s two acts, the scrim is gone; the people appear in monochrome costumes, with the flesh tones providing the stage picture’s only hint of color. The crowd’s pagan impulses are manifest in an inky black slime. This substance appeared in Act I, indicating Moses’s affliction with leprosy; here it becomes clear that the earlier miracle, making the ineffable God manifest, represented a form of paganism. Now Aron is forced to wallow in the ink; orgy participants immerse themselves in it; at one point, shockingly, the Calf itself gets slimed. (This ox is an extraordinarily docile creature.) The orgy is deliberately glum: sensual abandon offers no relief from God’s severity. If I found Castellucci’s approach in this act less convincing than in the first, it’s because he traffics rather too much in this-equals-that symbolism. (I still haven’t quite figured out the meaning of the naked woman who falls onto the stage at the end of Act I and is pulled to and fro throughout Act II.) But his stark, elegant stage images remain intriguing. 

The performance boasts a musically scrupulous pair of singers as the brothers. Thomas Johannes Mayer is an ideal Moses, bringing expressivity and deep musical logic to the prophet’s sprechstimme utterances. Aron’s high vocal lines sometimes require John Graham-Hall to shift into falsetto; at those moments the admirable force he generates in full voice dissipates, but he remains true to note values.

The adeptness with which the cast and instrumentalists tackle this work would have been all but unimaginable when it was composed. Philippe Jordan’s reading offers little sensuous appeal, perhaps because of the Bastille’s dry acoustics. But it is extraordinarily transparent: the performance allows you to hear every note as if the score lay open before your eyes. In a booklet note, Jordan reveals that the chorus rehearsed for more than a year; that meticulous preparation can be heard in the ensemble’s work, each note unanimously sounded through its center. This Moses und Aron was the first new production of Stepháne Lissner’s tenure as director of the Paris Opera, and it is hard to imagine a more decisive declaration of seriousness of purpose. —Fred Cohn 



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