Moses und Aron, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – review

No burning bush. No golden calf. No orgy. We may be accustomed to productions that ignore composers’ stage directions, but a performance of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron that omits every image of the Old Testament story stunts its theatrical potential. That’s what you risk when you import a staging from the home of Regietheater (director’s opera), as Welsh National Opera has done with this 11-year-old Stuttgart version. David Pountney, WNO’s general director, clearly has faith in it: he is taking it in late July to Covent Garden, where Moses und Aron has not been seen since the celebrated 1965 Peter Hall production.

Moses und Aron is complicated to perform under the best of circumstances, and not just because it is wholly built on 12-tone rows, or because it was left unfinished. No, the real complication lies in Schoenberg’s attempt to articulate a philosophical debate about the limits of man’s spiritual and intellectual aspirations, in which the abstract/ineffable (Moses) is invariably undermined by the visual/demagogic (Aron). At one extreme you have a concept that cannot be grasped or communicated; at the other you end up with an ugly free-for-all.

That indicates the scale of the task for a regional company touring an intellectual and logistical mind-bender to places better used to La bohème. But it is a measure of WNO’s ambition that it takes on the challenge. The performance is a triumph for its hugely esteemed music director, Lothar Koenigs, and its chorus and orchestra who, collectively and individually, master their parts with remarkable confidence and plasticity.

In the brain-teasing interpretation devised by Jossi Wieler and Serge Morabito (rehearsed by Jörg Behr), the opera unfolds in a Germanic-looking public chamber – a metaphor for contemporary politics, where the altruistic argument gets swept aside by the lowest common denominator. The second act is especially muted: the chorus takes on a largely static role, reacting to a film show that Aron has apparently laid on to satisfy popular taste.

Mark Le Brocq’s Aron, a last-minute substitute for an indisposed Rainer Trost, sounded understandably tentative at Saturday’s first night, while John Tomlinson lent Moses stage presence and impeccable German.

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