The Infinite in an Image: Moses und Aron at the Teatro Real

Schoenberg – Moses und Aron

Moses – Albert Dohmen
Aron – John Graham-Hall
Ein junges Mädchen – Julie Davies
Eine Kranke – Catherine Wyn Rogers

Ein junger Mann – Antonio Lozano
Jüngling – Michael Pflumm
Ein anderer Mann/Ephraimit – Oliver Zwarg
Ein Priester – Andreas Hörl
Vier nackte Jungfrauen – Julie Davies, Beatriz Jiménez, Anais Masllorens, Laura Vila
Stimme aus dem Dornbusch – Pilar Belaval, Cristina Teijeiro, Beatriz Oleaga, Cristian Díaz Navarro, Manuel Rodríguez, John Heath

Coro Titular del Teatro Real de Madrid, Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real de Madrid / Lothar Koenigs.
Stage director – Romeo Castellucci.

Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain.  Saturday, May 28th, 2016.  

It is often said of London buses that one waits a long time for one and then three come along at the same time.  In the case of Moses und Aron it is remarkable that I waited over three decades to see it and now, within the space of three years, have seen three very different productions.  What all three had in common was excellent musical values.  Indeed another common element tonight was the conducting of Lothar Koenigs, who also conducted the Welsh National Opera performance that I saw at the Royal Opera House back in 2014.  That was a staging that left much to the imagination, whereas Barrie Kosky’s at the Komische Oper last year attempted, not fully successfully in my opinion, to map the story of Moses und Aron to the Jewish experience in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Musically however, I have to say that the bar was set very high by the Komische Oper forces who performed this supremely challenging music with an ease and confidence that was awe-inspiring.

Photo: © Javier del Real
Photo: © Javier del Real

Romeo Castellucci gave us a staging that was less a staged narrative and more of an immersion into an extraordinary visual world.  His was a highly visual experience that intrigued and challenged.  This was not a vision that gave definitive answers to the questions that it raised, but rather suggested and allowed the audience to draw their own conclusions.  Furthermore, unlike Kosky’s staging, this was not an interpretation that engaged with the Jewishness of the work, rather it had a sense of timelessness and universality that made it seem neither of the now nor of the past nor of the future.  I have no doubt that every single one of the spectators in this very full theatre left with different individual impressions.  Yet it seemed to me that the staging had three distinct themes: an exploration of the nature of infinity and timelessness, the struggle of the individual against the collective, and the need to believe in a concrete manifestation of the word that unites.

Photo: © Javier del Real
Photo: © Javier del Real

The first act took place behind a gauze curtain with figures almost imperceptibly appearing and disappearing.  We were never given a sense of what was really there.  The only thing that we could be certain of being able to see initially was Moses and Aron.  Otherwise, figures would appear and change almost imperceptibly behind the curtain, with words relevant to concepts in the text being projected onto the curtain in Castilian.  The set was white and with curved edges at the back and sides it seemed to have no beginning or end.  Not only could we not conceive of its form but likewise we could also not fully conceive what was inside.  In a way, by trying to visually present a sense of infinity, Castellucci instead may well have been doing what Moses chastises the people for doing – attempting to create the infinite in an image.  As the evening progressed what was contained on the stage began to take clear form and individuals within the people and events on stage were made clear to us.  Likewise at the end of Act 2 we see Moses alone with a starry sky in the distance.  Moses was definitely portrayed as an outsider – in the first act he was costumed in black while the chorus was costumed in white.  In the second act, the chorus was covered in black ink while Moses was costumed in white.  His inability to express himself was also manifested by his separateness from the assembled forces.  The voice of the burning bush in the opening was represented by a mechanical tape reel that reeled down to Moses.  Later on, we saw Aron adorned in reels of mechanical tape as the people bathed themselves in black ink.  The idea seemed to me to be that the black ink represented a way for the people to idolize and cover themselves in something that created community, compared with Moses who stood apart.  There was no orgy but there was a solitary naked lady at the back of the stage.  As the second act developed we saw groups of individuals standing in formation, creating an effect of a willfully conforming mass.

Photo: © Javier del Real
Photo: © Javier del Real

This was a visually striking staging, one that perhaps prioritized images over conventional personenregie.  Indeed, it seemed that the singers interacted with the installation (and I use that word deliberately), instead of each other.  What struck me most was the sheer unflinching commitment of the cast – principals, chorus and actors – to creating music theatre that was visually captivating as well as musically excellent.  Seeing characters immersing themselves in black ink from head to toe in a pool on stage was in some ways nerve-wracking but also highlighted that incredible commitment.

Photo: © Javier del Real
Photo: © Javier del Real

That commitment was likewise manifested in a musical performance of extremely high quality.  The singing of the Teatro Real’s resident chorus, the Coro Intermezzo, was never less than first-rate.  They sang with theatre-filling amplitude, the tenors in particular really shining out of the texture.  Rhythmically they were absolutely spot on and there was a unanimity of tone and fullness of blend that was really impressive.  The unanimity of approach was also present in the way that they executed their movements around the stage.  This was a very fluent staging, where things happened almost imperceptibly and it says a lot that this excellent chorus made their movements so unanimous.

Photo: © Javier del Real
Photo: © Javier del Real

John Graham-Hall was a tireless Aron.  The voice absolutely even throughout the range, the tessitura holding no terrors.  He sounded as fresh at the end of the evening as he did at the start.  Albert Dohmen was similarly almost luxurious casting for Moses.  His bass-baritone is in excellent shape, warm and round, and he dispatched the sprechgesang with impeccable pitching and rhythmic momentum.  The remainder of the cast was excellent – Catherine Wyn Rogers’ piquant mezzo stood out as did Andreas Hörl’s sturdy bass.  The virgins and ensembles were nicely blended and offered singing of great beauty in places.

Photo: © Javier del Real
Photo: © Javier del Real

Lothar Koenigs led a reading that was both monumental and lyrical.  Compared with Vladimir Jurowski in Berlin, Koenigs sounded somewhat more relaxed, the tempi seemingly broader, though he found some genuine erotic charge in the dances.  He has a great ear for orchestral colour too, bringing out the true multiplicity of colours in the orchestration, from the shrieking woodwind to the bright and energetic percussion.  The house bland played like heroes for him with impeccable playing – I don’t think I heard a single split note or false entry all night.

Photo: © Javier del Real
Photo: © Javier del Real

This was a very different Moses und Aron than one might ever have seen before and I think it’s one that reveals itself in different ways for every single person who sees it.  Rather than giving answers, it seems to invite reflection and brings out a universality in the work that makes it a very different opera than we might have known before.  It is a visually overwhelming staging that takes its spectators on a journey to engage with the visuals rather than perhaps with the narrative.  What it ultimately succeeded in doing was, combined with an extremely strong musical performance, the evening gave us a total musically and visually immersive experience.  For that reason alone, this is a show that needs to be seen.

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