Das Wort: Moses und Aron at the Komische Oper, Berlin

Schoenberg – Moses und Aron

Moses – Robert Hayward

Aron – John Daszak

Ein junges Mädchen – Julia Giebel

Eine Kranke – Karolina Gumos

Ein junger Mann/Jüngling – Johannes Dunz

Ein anderer Mann/Ephraimit – Tom Erik Lie

Ein Priester – Jens Larsen

Vier nackte Jungfrauen – Julia Giebel, Karolina Gumos, Sheida Damghani, Zoe Kissa

Stimme aus dem Dornbusch – Julia Giebel, Karolina Gumos, Caren van Oijen, Michael Pflumm, Tom Erik Lie, Jens Larsen

Drei Älteste – Tim Dietrich, Henrik Pitt, Matthias Spenke

Kinderchor der Komischen Oper, Berlin, Vocalconsort Berlin, Chorsolisten der Komischen Oper, Berlin

Orchester der Komischen Oper, Berlin / Vladimir Jurowski

Stage director – Barrie Kosky

It’s quite incredible to think that having waited decades to see a staging of Moses und Aron, I have seen two within less than a year.  Together with another upcoming staging, co-produced between Paris and Madrid, it’s clear that those of us fascinated by this major contribution to the operatic canon are fortunate to have these opportunities within a short space of time.  The production I saw last year was Welsh National Opera’s which in turn they imported from Stuttgart.  While extremely well sung by their excellent chorus, I found the staging somewhat problematic in that it left far too much to the audience’s imagination, although in doing that, it did seek to universalize the work.  Barrie Kosky describes himself as a Jewish atheist and this is a work rooted in Schoenberg’s Jewishness.  Seeing the work in a city where so many atrocities were committed is inevitably going to be a highly emotional experience.  Regrettably, tonight, I found Kosky’s approach somewhat unfinished and slightly messy.

© Monika Rittershaus
Ensemble © Monika Rittershaus

After the show, I took the opportunity to read the program book and reflect on the staging and with the benefit of some reflection, it certainly makes much more sense than it did in the theatre.  That said, compared with someone like Bieito whose work is always so insightful and detailed from the very first viewing, perhaps tonight highlighted the difference between a competent storyteller and a great one.  The premise for the staging is that Kosky wanted it to reflect the history of Jewish life in Europe.  We all know where it leads to and yes, there was a highly graphic and visceral visualization of the Shoah which I found unbearable to watch.  Yet, there was little sense of this historical development in the first act with images redolent of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent events seemingly coming from nowhere.  One area where Kosky does deserve praise is in his handling of the vast chorus.  Having experienced so many shows recently where the chorus was effectively marched on and off, the way he created so many striking images with so many people was deeply impressive.  There were some Sellars-style hand gestures but also some genuinely striking moments, such as the chorus having a Talmudic discussion, with the chorus, split in two, each side arguing its corner.  There was another striking moment where the chorus ran around in circles as if becoming a large and industrious machine.  Then there was a moment where they danced with adult-sized dolls, the bodies were then piled on top of each other and covered in smoke.  Initially, I found it distasteful.  Preceded with the Dance of the Golden Calf, the people were seen to be celebrating in the most decadent way and at first, it felt as if Kosky was saying the only reward for that decadence was mass murder.  After the show, and on reflection, I found a much more powerful message.  At the end, Moses emerges from the mountain, the words of the commandments written on his torso.  As the bodies lie there, Moses rises above them as if to say, yes, this community is gone but the word still exists and as long as the word exists, so will faith.  In that respect, I found it a very powerful and moving idea, the problem was that I don’t think it was fully executed in that way.  Perhaps in the first revival, Kosky will tighten things up so that moment does have the impact it deserves.  As it stands, the staging is unfocused and does not match the sheer precision and invention of the score.

© Monika Rittershaus
Ensemble © Monika Rittershaus

Precision describes the superlative performance given to us by the massed choruses this evening.  They were simply outstanding.  I never thought that I would ever hear this score delivered with that kind of abandon and virtuosity.  To see that mass of people sing the most demanding score in the repertoire while perfectly enacting some highly demanding routines was humbling.  It transpires that they had over 100 music rehearsals before they even started staging it and that painstaking work had clearly more than paid off.  Their total command of the entire score was nothing short of amazing.  Even the quietest Sprechgesang was immaculately pitched, each note absolutely clear.  Combined with some highly musical solo contributions from the ensemble, it was a revelation.

© Monika Rittershaus
Robert Hayward, ensemble © Monika Rittershaus

Robert Hayward’s Moses was a dramatic livewire, intoning the Sprechgesang with abandon.  He portrayed the role with genuine feeling even while having to do what appeared to be some quite physically demanding magic tricks – swallowing the staff and spitting out a serpent for example.   John Daszak was a tireless and deeply musical Aron.  Yes the voice isn’t quite as steady at the very top as it could be but he sang the tiring role like it was the most natural thing in the world.  There was a genuine musicality that belied the difficulty of the role and he also played the concept of Aron as a charismatic game show host most successfully.

© Monika Rittershaus
Robert Hayward, Andreas Conrad © Monika Rittershaus

The orchestra played like heroes for Vladimir Jurowski.  As with the chorus, their command of this extremely difficult score was complete.  Jurowski obtained an enormous range of colours from them, from the silkiness of the dance to the austerity of the close, this was orchestral playing of genuine and unmistakable quality.  Jurowski led a very swift reading and it is incredible how the chorus managed to keep up and execute their complex movements.

© Monika Rittershaus
Ensemble © Monika Rittershaus

Musically, tonight was a deeply satisfying experience – the Komische forces did the work the justice that this masterpiece deserves.  With choral singing of the most staggering virtuosity and orchestral playing of an unrivalled range of colours, this was the kind of performance of the work, one dreams of.  Unfortunately, it was let down by a staging which did have something important to say, yet didn’t quite know how to say it.  Certainly after reflection I can see what Kosky was aiming for, the problem is that in order to have the most impact, it needs to be clear at the time.  This is a worthy contribution to our understanding of the piece and hopefully by its first revival, it will have been tightened up.

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