Moses und Aron

Last night I found myself once again in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, the bank holiday weekend giving me enough breathing space to head back to Wales for a short break and take in an Opera.

As it turned out there was a rare treat on the menu: the first night of a new Welsh National Opera production of Moses und Aron by Arnold Schoenberg. It was well worth the trip from Brighton.

Schoenberg had only completed two of the three acts by the time of his death in 1951 so the Opera is unfinished. On the other hand the Biblical story of the Exodus is so familiar that it doesn’t matter too much that some is missing. But although the plot is well known the Opera gives it several new dimensions.

Moses is chosen by God to lead his people from captivity but he is deeply troubled by the difficulty of this task because of his old age and the ‘clumsiness of his tongue’. Moses’ brother Aron has a much easier way with words (and pictures) so they join forces and lead the Jews from captivity into the wilderness.

Moses has deep reservations about Aron’s freedom with the use of images and other gimmicks, with good reason. In Act 2 while Moses is away receiving the Ten Commandments and whatnot, leaving Aron in charge, Aron permits all kind of lewd and ungodly behaviour, all starting with his use of images to depict God. Upon Moses’ return all that comes to an end, but it has exposed an irreconcilable disagreement between the two brothers about what if anything of the divine can ever be expressed in words. Moses’ concept of God is absolute and unknowable, requiring faith rather than understanding; Aron is content to use the Method of Images.

I’m not qualified to go into the theology behind all this, but it did have some resonance with me as a scientist. How much of the truth of creation do we capture with our words and equations, or are they just images?

Anyway, back to the Opera. The staging was modern, Act I was a lecture room or conference centre. Moses appeared as an ageing professor and Aron as a sort of Teaching Assistant. The Israelites were depicted as rowdy and occasionally violent students. The set changed slightly in Act 2 to resemble a movie theatre, implying that Aron’s images were cinematic, presumably violent and pornographic.

Moses was played by the legendary Sir John Tomlinson. His deeply sonorous voice and compelling stage presence provided a perfect focus for the production. Aron was Mark Le Brocq, whose fine performance was all the more remarkable because he was understudy for Rainer Trost who was unwell; to pick up such a challenging part at a few hours’ notice can not be easy and he did wonderfully well. As always, the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were also excellent.

Schoenberg’s music for Moses un Aron is resolutely serialist, which will no doubt put some people off. I found it gripping and starkly beautiful, performed with consummate artistry by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs.

All in all, yet another wonderful evening of music drama courtesy of WNO. Only two performances of Moses und Aron were planned for Cardiff this season; the other is next Friday (30th May). I’m glad that the Wales Millennium Centre was nearly full, as I hope WNO will continue putting on rare and challenging music like this. Unfortunately it seems the Arts Council have other ideas, and have just cut their grant to WNO. Fewer new productions and more revivals are in store from now on.

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