SCHOENBERG’S Moses und Aron is a monumental unfinished work.
Welsh National Opera have tackled this operatic collossus in a sign of their increased ambition under the directorship of David Pountney. It forms the first part of its summer Faith season of three operas.
The music is modernist and wonderful, but the staging of Schoenberg’s epic is woeful in its misjudged 21st century modernity and hinders the well-known Exodus story of Moses leading his people from Egypt.
The opening act is staged in a conference centre replete with lecterns and seating facing the audience.
John Tomlinson sings Moses, who seeks the help of his silver-tongued brother, Aron, to put into words to the Israelites what God wants them to do.
Whether the staging is meant to be an allegory for the modern-day Middle East peace process or not is unclear, but it certainly distracts from the compelling opera.
Understudy Mark Le Broq was given short notice to sing Aron, in what is a supremely difficult role, and he was masterly. It is hard to credit just how good he was, especially since Le Broq had not apparently rehearsed the role with the orchestra and chorus.
The chorus is equally hard-worked by Schoenberg and during the first act their ferocious berating of Moses brings him to his knees, as the mob roars its disbelief of the God they are being told to follow.
The sound the chorus makes is colossal as it soars to dizzying heights and is like being hit by a wall of sound.
But despite the compelling singing and acting what comes unbidden to mind is not how dramatic the libretto is as Moses tells Aron about “a miracle,” but Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
When Moses goes into the wilderness in the second act, leaving his tribe in the desert, Aron pacifies the mob by indulging them with their idolatrous need for visible gods. The stage setting worsens, as it becomes a cinema where the chorus sits watching Aron’s movie.
This gives rise to an uneasy feeling of the audience watching the chorus watching the audience.
There is no singing for over five minutes as the chorus watches the movie that the audience cannot see. The Israelites become enflamed and an orgy breaks out, only stopping when Moses comes back with the 10 Commandments.
The performances of Le Broq and Tomlinson are wonderful and the WNO chorus’ wall of sound is simply biblical. Conductor Lothar Koenig leads the orchestra’s glorious playing of Schoenberg’s score and ultimately this more then makes up for the poor staging.
* At the Millennium Centre and on tour until 26 July. WNO website for details.