Staging a masterwork

 Sir John Tomlinson  as Moses with cast members of Welsh National Opera. Pictures: Bill Cooper

Moses und Aron

Welsh National Opera

*****

WELSH National Opera’s three annual visits to the Hippodrome amount to one of the most important and beneficial cultural events in Birmingham’s cultural calendar.

WNO has since its inception proved itself a company of European quality and standards. Now, under the leadership of Artistic Director David Pountney and German conductor Lothar Koenigs (Music Director since 2009), it is proving itself not just a cracking company but a masterly one.

WNO’s current ‘themed’ seasons are not just an audience/ticketing hit: they are major artistic happenings, centred on Cardiff and Birmingham and a few other centres (Llandudno, Southampton, Bristol; Oxford again this autumn) – rather than London. (WNO sometimes presents major productions there).

A trail of ‘British Firsts’ - operas by composers such as the late Jonathan Harvey and, in the current summer season, Gordon Getty (Usher House) continue a bold tradition of commissioning seen in – for instance - John Metcalf’s Tornrak and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Doctor of Myddfai (to a politically knockout, almost Verdian libretto by Pountney himself), both of which Pountney should seriously consider reviving.

But when one looks at both pre-Pountney (Gloriana, The Queen of Spades, Hänsel and Gretel (both Richard Jones stagings), Katya Kabanova, Dialogues of the Carmelites (with ENO), Pelleas and Melisande and perhaps above all, Billy Budd), and now Pountney-era operas (Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, Berg’s Lulu, the current Schoenberg masterpiece Moses und Aron), one is abruptly reminded that here we hear not some Celtic fringe troupe, but a genuinely international company (publicity, programmes and surtitles in Cardiff - or north Wales - are resolutely in the Welsh language): an ensemble of truly world class standing and world-beating talents.

David Pountney calls Moses and Aaron (to give it its English title – although WNO sings operas in the original language, making it by far the most important company of its kind in Britain outside the Royal Opera, which it sometimes surpasses, and perhaps Glyndebourne) ‘Schoenberg’s masterpiece and his testament’. Is he right?

Well yes, on both counts, to judge by this musically terrific, though – because in a way it’s a semistaging approach – rather less visually impacting production by Stuttgart- (south German-based) joint directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito.

One should emphasise, however that the very well concentrated, untired-looking WNO revival of the historic Baden-Württemburg capital’s original was  Richard Wiegold by revival director Jörg Behr, now just in his forties but one of the most travelled of all directors helping re-enliven the middle-rank opera houses scattered across Germany.

Behr holds the Götz Friedrich award for best emerging (stage) director. In opera terms, you don’t go much higher than that (Friedrich being a legend, for his 1960s-80s left-leaning Wagner productions at Bayreuth and elsewhere).

 The opera’s first part consisted mainly of bass Sir John Tomlinson mooching around what looked like a cross between a clutter of schoolroom desks and the debating chamber of the Reichstag or (say) Scottish Parliament, a Moses who is reaching out to an elusive, unseen God represented by no idols (Moses in a sense anticipates the 9th-10th century Ikonoclast movement, and indeed the spirit of Islam in regarding depiction of the deity as untenable); then wandering off to seek the tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, leaving the rest in the Negev desert – a real wasteland between the Red Sea and Gulf of Eilat – while Aaron (Aron, tenor), his brother, first mollifies the restless Israelites and then throws in his lot with the grumblers, and allows the notorious Golden Calf to be cast and worshipped (it’s gratifying how close this essentially modern text sticks to the Exodus original).

Richard Wiegold brings magnificent gravitas to his role as the Priest

Schoenberg makes sure we get the full works – there’s a massive party and orgy which outdoes the lecherous scenes in Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrims’ Progress, or indeed anything in Berg’s Lulu. It’s great fun – a burst of sunshine, and rather well controlled by Wieler/Morabito/Behr.

Aron’s role is to contrast, graphically, with Moses’ rather limp glad-handings and mopings and occasional ravings. Tomlinson, moody, articulate and less gruff than sometimes, gives us the classic case of ‘a prophet not without honour except [not quite yet] in his own land’ - which is one of the things that has made people many times speculate that Arnold Schoenberg is partly writing about himself.

Here was an Expressionist artist (he exhibited with, occasionally mixed with, the Die Blaue Reiter Modernist movement), and a composer seven or so years on from first deploying openly his 12-tone or 12-note compositional scheme. Schoenber was indeed, as Thomas Mann saw, a kind of Adrian Leverkühn (the aloof composer-hero from Doktor Faustus), who has a language that speaks forcibly to himself, and to his sympathetic friend/interlocutor (Berg? Like Mahler’s friend in Visconti’s Death in Venice), but not to many others.

Schoenberg played these parallels down without quite expressly denying them. But the fascination of this libretto (the composer’s own) – for Pountney surely, as well as us – is that what we have (two acts) of this truncated, passionate opera about the Jewish Volk, its wanderings in both senses (escape, meanderings, errors and perplexities – Verwirringunen - but implicitly its thwarted potential) was ready by 1932; which might have suggested a premiere in 1933 – in Hitler’s Germany.

What a time it would have been to be presenting, so articulately on stage, in the Vaterland, the monotheistic/momentarily animistic aspirations and internal tensions of the cleverest race on the planet.

Which brings one to WNO’s commendably detailed programme and the fact that it first saw light, or impacted, in concert at Hamburg in 1954 – still the Fürtwangler era; and got its first staging at, amazingly, Covent Garden in 1965, the Solti era (although remember that Adrian Boult conducted the first UK reading of Wozzeck, in the 1930s).

It reminds me of a perhaps even greater masterpiece, Simplicius Simplicissimus, by German 20th century master Karl Amadeus Hartmann, written by the composer in internal exile in Germany but not seen till 1948. Its subject? The futility of war and aggression. Its setting – the 30 years’ war, witnessed by a boy simpleton (female soprano, thought to see it with a Brittenesque boy of Westminster Cathedral/Trinity WNO Moses und Aron - Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Fourth Naked Virgin)Boys’ Choir standard might be interesting) who is inarticulate to grasp any of it but becomes our eyes, our ears.

There is a real feeling, as in Simplicius, of as new era, a new millennium dawning that may – or may not – lead mankind forward. Schoenberg’s focusing on Moses and Aaron produces the simplest kind of dualism, a kind of Hegel-Nietzsche-Schopenhauer dialectic, and it’s just as gloomy as the last both in its debate and in its conclusions, One of the odd paradoxes is that listening to much of this semi-chanted, only occasionally spoke opera, some of the German (of course) sounds like Hitler ranting. How could it not?  But the effect is disconcerting and rather nastily surreal.

What about the music? My companion, vastly informed about classical music and the arts, left after half time because, while interested, he ‘could not take another hour of utterly tuneless music’.

 

Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as the Fourth Naked Virgin

 

I, by contrast heard nothing but melodies, tunes, albeit angular ones, and long - almost Bachian - lines, worked out with scrupulous and energising (rather than tedious) thoroughness. Some of is no more complicated than, say, Hindemith. Aron’s appeals to his brother – a different view of the use of graven images, iconongraphy, which eventually prevailed not in Judaism or Mohammedanism, but in medieval/Renaissance Christianity (to which Schoenberg was gradually being drawn), are not just intellectually articulate; they are also musically so.

We tend to think of Berg as lush, Webern as ascetic and Schoenberg, their mentor, as (post-Gurrelieder) unrelievedly dry; but this opera, like so much else, proves how wrong that is. The various subsequent uses of his method are not a displacement of or replacement for Romanticism; a long, tearful goodbye: they are an extension of it.

The hero (not quite villain) of this whole scenario and shenanigans is actually not Moses but Aaron. Pountney’s company produced a major coup in signing up (from the Stuttgart staging) the utterly wonderful tenor Rainer Trost. Before the crisis while Moses is absent, it is even Aron who pumps the party line: ‘Close your eyes: open your ears. There is no other way to see him, no other way to perceive him. When as chief spokesman and articulator he – as it were – changes sides, blowing to popular urging, there is a strange consistency in the clarity of the thinking.

WNO chooses its casts carefully, and almost everyone did his or her job well. Elizabeth Atherton was superbly enticing as the Young Maiden who keeps cropping up in various pink guises. The sextet of well-balanced solo voices (3 female, 3 male), which impacted quite early on, was beautifully calibrated.

Richard Wiegold, a famously fine Sarastro, King Mark and Commendatore, brings magnificent gravitas to his roles – here, as the Priest, deciding which wind to blow with.  he sang in WNO’s recent staging of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream. Finally he was Snug (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) - slow of study and quite marvellous. Wiegold is one of the big, characterful assets of numerous of London – and metropolitan - opera companies.

The other treats of this tense, passionate Moses und Aron included, predictably, WNO’s chorus, which many consider Britain’s most stylishly appetising (just witness the two magnificent, catastrophic Welsh choruses in The Doctor of Myddfai, or hear their input on Mackerras’s landmark Argo recording of Gloriana).

Sometimes they, en masse, sing the voice of God (compare Britten’s eerie yet reassuring duet in his canticle Abraham and Isaac).There are echoes of the Turbae from J. S. Bach’s two main Passions. Some of the early writing clearly foreshadows Stravinsky’s 1960s spare form of Serialism; in other places, we can see where Harrison Birtwistle’s music is coming from.

The orchestra under Koenigs was full of nice, shivery instrumental touches: a cello solo here; what sounded like a contrabassoon; a passage for double basses and attendant bass clarinet, then oboes vibrant but clarinets demurely whispering. It’s all as lucid as the orchestration of that other occasional musical pariah, Webern. The fugal writing – and here, WNO’s playing and the chorus’s singing of it – was quite superb. Top ensemble, top-class stuff.

But also, less obviously, Daniel Grice, the vocally attractive,, well-travelled pupil of Robert Lloyd - a baritone of striking weight, intensity and poignancy. Grice’s ‘Ephraimite’ was – for all his modest contrary interjections – something special.

As for Trost, he’s just off the scale, or off the planet - as Aaron is, in moody brother Moses’ view. It’s almost a generation problem. Elsewhere, Trost is Tamino, and a Schubertian of elegance and eminence. But such is his delivery that composers – the Mozarts and Schuberts and Webers of today - should be writing roles for him like mad.

Roderic Dunnett

11-06-14

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