Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is a very peculiar opera. It’s pretty much an extended debate about the nature of God cast in highly abstract terms. So who better to direct it than the almost unbearably cerebral Romeo Castellucci. Previous encounters with his work have been puzzling, thought provoking (and WTF provoking) but never dull. All those terms could be deployed to describe the production recorded at L’Opéra nationale de Paris in 2015.
Castellucci’s starting point is the concluding sentence of Act 2 (only the two completed acts are given here unlike the Straub Huillet film), “O Word, thou Word that I lack!”. It’s the encapsulation of Moses inability to communicate his “pure” ideal of the Omnipotent in words or images and, essentially an admission of defeat though not a capitulation to the pragmatic approach of Aron.
It’s very much a piece in two parts. Act 1 is essentially the highly abstract debate on the nature of God. Even Aron’s miracles are abstracted. It mostly seems to take place behind a scrim with shapes rather than discernible people. It’s very, very white. The burning bush is a reel to reel tape recorder spewing out the magnetic Word of God. Aron’s staff looks like, perhaps, a representation of Fafner in a sci-fi version of the ring. Rapidly changing words are projected almost continously above the “action”. Sometimes they seem to have some relevance to what’s going on, other times not so much. It’s very effective at focussing attention on the words and the music.
Act 2 in contrast is much more concrete though just as symbolic and with little connection to the literal text. The Golden Calf is a real bull. Although there is a naked woman on stage throughout there are no orgies as such. There’s a lot of a sort of brown/black goo. Does it symbolise blood? Or oil – can one do a piece set in the middle east without oil these days? Or does it just represent the defilement of Moses’ pure concept of God? Somehow Aron becomes a sort of gooey mass of magnetic tape with a sort of Aztec mask and everyone gets very grubby in varied ritualistic ways. Moses returns in pure white. he only gets grubby when he makes direct contact with Aron or when Aron claims that the Tablets of the Law are just an image too. Moses is defiled by the yellow goo that rams horns, symbolizing the tablets, hold. So symbol is piled on symbol in a way that’s hard to fully decode but, generally speaking, make sense.
What comes off very clearly is the way the contrasts between Moses and Aron are coded in the score. Thomas Johannes Mayer sticks perfectly to the Sprechgesang written for Moses while John Graham-Hall’s high tenor is perfect for Aron’s more lyrical music. Dramatically too they contrast with Moses austere and remote while Graham-Hall makes of Aron a man of strong, conflicting and sometimes despairing emotions. It’s very fine. The minor characters (and the cast includes the likes of Chris Purves and Catherine Wyn-Rogers) and the chorus are superb in the way they deal with the shifting musical kaleidoscope of Schoenberg’s score. Philippe Jordan conducts in a way that lays bare the layers of the score with excellent support from the orchestra and the singers. Musically this is very fine.
Technically this is a very good package. It’s presented in 2.2:1 aspect ratio to avoid having to superimpose the subtitles on the picture (Castellucci’s request). On Blu-ray the HD recording manages to capture the rather ethereal Act 1 stage picture very well. I suspect this might not work at all well on standard DVD. The DTS-HD sound is very good indeed. Stéphane Lissner does a really good job of getting the essence of the production onto film; an object lesson in less is more. There are no extras on the disc but the booklet has essays by Jordan (enlightening) and Castellucci (typically dense and hard to decode) plus a track listing and a synopsis that “tells it straight” and makes no attempt to relate the action as described in the libretto to what Castellucci us doing on stage. Sub title options are English, French, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.
I think this is well worth seeing for anyone interested in high concept opera. Musically and technically it’s excellent and Castellucci’s production is, at worst, intriguing.