Belief, Distortion, Vision: Moses und Aron at the Semperoper Dresden

Schoenberg – Moses und Aron

Moses – John Tomlinson
Aron – Lance Ryan
Ein junges Mädchen – Tahnee Niboro
Eine Kranke – Christa Mayer
Ein junger Mann/ein nackter Jüngling – Simeon Esper
Ein anderer Mann/Ephraimit – Matthias Henneberg
Ein Priester – Magnus Piontek
Ein Jüngling – Kim Beomjin
Vier nackte Jungfrauen – Tania Lorenzo, Tahnee Niboro, Grace Durham, Constance Heller
Sechs Stimmen – Katerina von Bennigsen, Stepanka Pucalkova, Michal Doron, Aaron Pegram, Jiři Rajniš, Tilmann Rönnebeck. 

Kinderchor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Sinfoniechor Dresden – Extrachor der Semperoper Dresden, Vocalconsort Berlin, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden / Alan Gilbert.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Semperoper, Dresden, Germany.  Saturday, September 28th, 2018.

There is something about Calixto Bieito’s work that seems to immediately tap into the zeitgeist.  His stagings become troubling, visceral theatrical insights that can leave open-minded spectators moved, troubled and shaken by what’s seen on stage.  His productions, rather than being opera as entertainment, make opera mean something.  I start with these thoughts because what Bieito and the cast at the Dresden Semperoper gave us tonight is a Moses und Aron very much for today.  Back in those hopeless days, at the end of June 2016, when it seemed that the forces of hate had won, his Munich staging of La Juive, provided insight and catharsis at a time when they were desperately needed.  Similarly, his 2010 Stuttgart Parsifal, seen in March this year, was a piercingly insightful meditation on the empty promises that come with blind belief in a self-appointed saviour.  This Moses und Aron is very much in the same vein.

Photo: © Ludwig Olah

Bieito gives us a multifaceted, complex, and at times understated, exploration of how a people can be led astray by the empty promises of a telegenic leader, who distorts messages to bring people what they think they want to hear.  It’s multifaceted because there’s a wealth of detail and symbolism here that’s almost impossible to take in on a first viewing.  Understated, because Bieito leaves so much to the imagination, willing to allow spectators to bring their own experiences to interpret what is seen.  As always, Bieito is a superlative director of choruses.  The way he, and the multitudes on stage, map the journey of the people, from broken and damaged, to a mob rapidly losing control as soon as the old certainties disappear, and then back to a rigid, regimented mob, was staggering.  As was the violence with which they demanded freedom – matched with an equally ferocious response from the pit – every single person on stage both a clearly discernable individual, as well as being part of the mob.

Photo: © Ludwig Olah

What this Moses und Aron has in common with Bieito’s most recent other staging, the Zurich Poppea, is how much what is seen on stage seems completely married to, and an organic part, of what we hear.  This is opera as gesamtkunstwerk, something it so often promises to be, but rarely is.  Nowhere more so than in the orgy, which was staged as the crowd watching and living their own individual fantasies through virtual reality glasses.  The descent into chaos was thrillingly depicted with pixilated images of soft porn appearing on, and covering the stage (video by Sarah Derendinger).  Each individual reacting to what they saw in their own way – a naked woman rolling around the floor, or a naked youth being grabbed by a gentleman chorister, for instance.  What also fascinated was how Bieito used the set (Rebecca Ringst) to illustrate the people’s situation.  The way that they were trapped within a white box that closed in on itself, trapping them into this dream of freedom they claimed they wanted felt, at least to someone living in the UK, unbelievably raw, painful and timely.

Photo: © Ludwig Olah

Similarly, the roles of the brothers were fascinatingly mapped – Moses a gruff, older figure, Aron a suited and convincing persuader.  John Tomlinson brought a lifetime of experience to the role of Moses.  His stage presence is undimmed, the way that he shook with frustration unable to express himself, the fear manifested as he experienced his people turn on him, was absolutely compelling.  Vocally, the role sits well at this point in his career.  He declaimed the text with accuracy of pitching, the warm bottom filling the theatre.  If the tone further up is somewhat worn now, he used it fully to express his character’s frustration.  Lance Ryan’s Aron was confidently sung and acted.  He also gave us remarkable clarity of text.  The part sits extremely high and the voice didn’t quite do everything he asked of it – occasionally needing to resort to crooning in the high sustained tessitura.  The top also took on a piercing, penetrating quality at full volume.  Still, his willingness to completely inhabit the role and give so selflessly, was certainly much appreciated.

Photo: © Ludwig Olah

Giving selflessly of themselves was something that also distinguished the performances of the augmented choruses, here joined by guests from Berlin.  Bieito used the houses’ legendary acoustic in a remarkable way, the opening voices of the burning bush coming to us from one of the balconies, high up in the auditorium, washing the room in a warm envelope of sound.  Musically, they were as fearless as they were dramatically, the sopranos in particular beaming out laser-like accuracy of tone on high, into the auditorium.  The accuracy of their pitching meant that they gave Schoenberg’s harmonies a beauty and sensuality that I hadn’t necessarily been aware of, the blend absolutely ravishing in tone.  They had been rehearsing for a year – and it showed, in the pristine ensemble, absolutely watertight all night.  In the remainder of the cast, a special mention for Tahnee Niboro’s creamy soprano, and a magnetic cameo from the dusky-toned, warm contralto of Christa Mayer.  The remaining roles were sung with distinction, reflecting the exceptionally high standards of the house’s ensemble.

Photo: © Ludwig Olah

As indeed did the playing of the glorious house orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, under Alan Gilbert.  Gilbert led a visceral, physical reading, with fluent tempi, which brought out so much of the rhythmic impetus of the score.  The insistent and threatening whacks on the xylophone, or the danger lurking in the low brass, was revelatory.  As with the choruses, the ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra gave us playing of staggering accuracy, founded on a warm carpet of string sound.  This was very much a reading that felt totally connected to what we saw on stage.  The violence of the mob, or the insinuating convincingness of Aron, finding their reflection in the pit.  Gilbert made the music seem like a living, breathing masterpiece in a way that one so often longs to hear, but rarely does.  It was a revelation.

Photo: © Ludwig Olah

This was an astounding evening in the theatre, one that left this spectator thrilled, moved and disturbed in equal measure.  Bieito gives us what is very much a Moses und Aron for today.  He transforms the work, in collaboration with his cast, into a thrilling interrogation of the blind belief that a people can put into someone who distorts messages in order to claim he has all the answers.  It’s a somewhat bleak view of society, one in where the good of the community has been overtaken by the pursuit of self-gratification.  As so often with Bieito, however, it felt like an inspirational call to arms, a reminder of the need to look beyond oneself and rediscover the fundamental solidarity of society.  Something also highly relevant in Saxony right now.  Yet, a great staging can tell only half the story, and in the assembled forces the Semperoper provides a team able to rise to the work’s ultimate challenges.  The dedication with which they gave us singing and playing of such extreme accuracy and virtuosity was awe-inspiring.  A great evening in the theatre, one that any lover of this work needs to see and hear.  There are only a very few performances scheduled, if you can get to Dresden, go.

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