Arnold Schönberg initially conceived his masterpiece, Moses und Aron, as an oratorio, and that unstaged vision of the work lingered in its incomplete operatic form. Only two of the three acts were finished in the score, and the stage directions basically ensured that the opera could never be staged. It remains a glorious impossibility (pace Robert Reilly). The work's genesis is bound up with Schönberg's realization that his Jewish identity had remained intact, in spite of a youthful conversion to Lutheranism (he had been forced to leave the resort town of Mattsee, where he had a vacation house, after it was closed to Jews). The composition of the music, from 1930 to 1932, was completed just before the Austrian composer fled the mounting Nazi threat to settle in the United States.
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A. Schönberg, Moses und Aron, F. Grundheber, T. Moser, Vienna State Opera, D. Gatti
(released May 29, 2007)
Arthaus Musik 101 259
This remarkable DVD has been on my desk for several months, but do not let my tardiness in writing about it deter you. Moses und Aron does not get performed all that often, for obvious reasons (New York City Opera premiered it in New York only in 1990, and it did not reach the Met until 1999, a production revived in 2003). Released last year, this live recording from the Wiener Staatsoper is, at the moment, the only game in town. Whether you should own it or not depends on where your tastes lie. A listener who balks at dissonant music -- the opera is an example of Schoenberg's fully developed 12-tone style -- will probably curse my name for recommending it, but no one who is at all serious about contemporary opera should leave this stone unturned.
Musically, this is a first-rate performance, with astounding singing (and rhythmic speaking) from the leads, bass-baritone Franz Grundheber as Moses and tenor Thomas Moser as Aron. An immense and excellent chorus, so important in this work, brings together the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus. Daniele Gatti expertly holds the huge forces together through this most complicated and densely packed of scores. Reto Nickler's staging, filling out the concept initiated by Willy Decker, is at first drably monochromatic. The Israelites, not unlike Decker's chorus of black-suited automatons in the Salzburg La Traviata, are in matching black and white costumes, with caps and suitcases that recall the exodus of 20th-century European Jews.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Then, at the forging of the Golden Calf, the strict black and white aesthetic is disturbed by the introduction of gold fabric. Suddenly, the desert becomes Las Vegas, a tasteless land of blonde wigs and gold jackets, a vapid swinger culture glutted with video images of pornography, breast augmentation, advertising, and violence. The libretto, by the composer, is loosely based on the Biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt, and the abstract nature of this staging takes us farther away from the story's origins, with admirable, if somewhat obscure, psychological results. If you are hoping for a titillating staging of the orgy scene (Act II, scene 3), you have come to the wrong place. (What young singer would not be proud to have a credit as Third Naked Virgin on her CV?) In an unexpected bonus track, Franz Grundheber gives a reading of the final speech of Moses, in the libretto's third act. It is the only way to try to "complete" this unfinished work, as Schoenberg left behind no sketches for the opera's conclusion.