By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — Schönberg’s Moses and Aron poses an inherent contradiction to the stage director. The opera, whose third act the composer never completed, grapples with the impossibility of representing the Divine through earthly images yet, in casting the biblical story about the exodus from Egypt as a piece of theater, makes it impossible to avoid doing just that. Barrie Kosky, mounting the stage work for the first time in the history of the Komische Oper Berlin, confronts the problem by driving human images further and further over the top. He creates a parable for Jewish history in which defeat is inevitable and God’s power is no more than an optical illusion.
Seen at the April 19 premiere, Moses first appears wrapped in an oriental rug, an object whose symbolism is never disclosed. Sets by Klaus Grünberg create the feeling of an industrialized mosque, although the carpets could also allude to the famous possessions of Sigmund Freud. Aron, meanwhile, appears to Moses in the guise of a cabaret prankster, holding sway over what is traditionally Moses’ magical staff and, in the turbulent second act, bringing a group of men to bow at his own feet head down. Aron, in other words, is running the show. And Moses is a frustrated buffoon who can only stutter and sob through his opening line (“The only One, the infinite, Thou omnipresence unperceived and inconceivable”).
As is often a dilemma at the Komische Oper, where Kosky has served as intendant since 2012, some operas don’t easily lend themselves to humor. The director strikes a deft balance between dark irony and real-life tragedy, but the latter is at times so overbearing as to superimpose meaning on Schönberg’s cryptic work. The second act includes direct references to the Holocaust, with a pile of life-size dolls standing in for the mountain of revelation. Moses descends with the holy tablets inscribed in bloody letters on his upper body; instead of smashing them, he is obligated to stab himself and lie down with the dead (covering himself sheepishly with a carpet).
The second act nevertheless has moments of brilliant stage direction. The dance of the golden calf emerges with a gilded cabaret dancer who shimmies her way through the orgy until it cedes to mayhem. The massive chorus, expertly choreographed throughout the evening, pummels mannequins in orthodox dress just as the music turns violent. Much as Moses und Aron allowed Schönberg to grapple with the fate of Judaism in the turbulent 1930s, the work provides Kosky with a medium to explore a culture’s conflict and tragedy in the postmodern age. But the director doesn’t know when to leave a good thing alone. An elderly woman, first designated by Aron as a symbol for Israel as she collects offerings of golden necklaces, emerges topless, spray painted gold, standing downstage in shock at the brawl.
Was it appropriate to exploit a human body to this end, given the evening’s mixture of probing seriousness and detached sarcasm? The production seemed intent upon mocking the idea of God as an ineffable presence, which surely undermines Schönberg’s tortured search to come to terms with his own spirituality at a time when it may have seemed impossible to do so: he wrote the opera during his last years in Berlin, in an atmosphere of rabid anti-Semitism.
At least the score received a careful reading by the house orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. Rhythmic counterpoint was tight throughout the evening and phrasing impressively taut. While the low woodwinds and brass were often rough around the edges as they wound through jagged melodies, they remained in balance with the strings, subsumed into Schönberg’s pointillist universe of organized chaos. As per Kosky’s reading, Robert Hayward was a determined yet pitiful Moses. Although his high range was at times thin, the tenor John Daszak made for a sly Aron, carrying a few magic tricks up his sleeve, such as a red light that materialized from between his fingers, although his high range was at times thin.
House ensemble members did an admirable job in support, with soprano Julia Giebel bringing polished musicianship to the role of the girl, Jens Larsen an authoritative bass to the priest, and Michael Pflumm a youthful tenor to the young man. But it was the chorus — joined by members of the Vocalconsort Berlin and profiting from some 100 rehearsals — that filled the stage with personality. The naturalism Kosky brought to his treatment of the ensemble would have been welcome in other areas of the production.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide and other publications.