Let Thy People Go

It’s long been said around the Metropolitan Opera that whatever Jimmy wants, Jimmy gets. And why not, considering that James Levine has put in more than 25 years of hard labor at the Met and the company owes him much? Part of that debt is now being paid off in the form of the Met’s first-ever production of Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, an opera Levine has been yearning to conduct in New York for years. I doubt that there was ever much enthusiasm around the house for a project with so little hope of causing a crush at the box office. Schoenberg may have helped shape the destiny of twentieth-century music, and Moses und Aron may be a towering masterpiece, but the general opera-going public has never warmed to either the composer or his most important stage work and probably never will.

Well, too bad for the general opera-going public, and bravo for Levine – Moses und Aron belongs in the repertory of any major company with the means to deal adequately with its fearsome musical and scenic requirements, and today’s Met most certainly has the wherewithal to do the piece full justice. Actually, the main stumbling block for an audience is not so much grappling with Schoenberg’s score – the tolerance level for twelve-tone music has risen markedly since the opera was written in 1930?32 – but how to interpret the implications of the composer’s text. The conflict between Moses and Aron as presented here – how to translate the abstract idea of God into terms of human intelligibility – functions on several levels: as a theological concept, as a metaphor for art, as a political statement, even as Schoenberg’s own personal dilemma at a crucial moment in his life when he reconverted to the Jewish faith. The two protagonists vividly personify this moral-aesthetic-political struggle, both dramatically and musically. Moses und Aron is indeed a real opera and not, as many still seem to think, an oratorio or a dry theoretical tract.

That said, I’m sorry to report that the Met production turns out to be a grievous disappointment, one that fails to serve the opera in just about every way imaginable. Exactly what the production team of Graham Vick (direction) and Paul Brown (set and costume design) had in mind is hard to say – the whole sorry business has a let’s-throw-it-onstage-and-see-if-it-works look, a clutter of ill-assorted and poorly digested ideas without consistency or even much relevance to the piece. The cast is more or less in contemporary dress, with Moses as a barrel-chested businessman (with bare feet) and Aron looking rather like his chauffeur. The Israelites are first seen miming everyday activities – chatting, working out, typing, online stock trading, etc. – until the golden calf arrives and all hell breaks loose. Women in fur coats read fan magazines, disco-dancing punks rough up their girls, old men don plastic bags and suffocate (but later return to life and walk offstage), beggars carry tattered umbrellas, naked virgins (still in their undies – the Met is a family house, after all) strangle themselves on a red clothesline, and paparazzi seize photo ops everywhere.

But wait, there’s more. Moses comes down from the mountain on a gigantic airline runway; the cartoonish sets are supplied with pop-up pyramids; explanatory English titles à la Brecht are scrawled on the scenery for the totally clueless; the six solo voices representing the burning bush sit onstage in formal evening dress holding scores and mouthing their music (Schoenberg wanted a disembodied sound from the orchestra pit); Moses and Aron sometimes totter off balance on a moving sidewalk. I could go on, but why bother? Moses und Aron can be staged in many valid ways that effectively communicate the purity, clarity, and dramatic power of Schoenberg’s vision – Peter Hall’s raw biblical epic at Covent Garden in 1965 and Achim Freyer’s stark, sun-baked minimalist imagery at the City Opera in 1990 are just two memories that I treasure. But Vick and Brown refuse to take the piece seriously, haphazardly heaping the stage with piles of brainless junk that positively insult the intelligence.

More surprising, the musical side of the evening is little better. Schoenberg intended the role of Moses to be spoken on pitch, a rigorous song-speech of rocklike majesty to contrast with Aron’s sinuous, smoothly articulate vocal lines. John Tomlinson ruins the whole effect by vainly attempting to sing the notes, unnaturally puffing up his voice in the process and making himself sound like an over-the-hill bass. In music that should ideally be sung with the spinning lyrical tone of a young Fritz Wunderlich, Philip Langridge’s aging tenor sounds thick, unappealing, and recalcitrant. Perhaps both singers are hampered by the inane production, but neither one manages to project the slightest sense of personality or conflict.

Considering Levine’s commitment to the opera, his contribution to this sad affair is most puzzling of all. As has been pointed out time and again, the Met orchestra under his care has been fashioned into a crack instrument, one that should be able to give a dazzling account of this subtle and exquisitely fashioned score. And yet the orchestral playing everywhere lacks color, definition, expressive shape, and emotional intensity, essential musical qualities that might at least help neutralize what we see onstage. Unfortunately, all the great moments pass for virtually nothing: the seductive blend of flute, harp, and solo strings that introduces Aron’s first lyrical solo; the sheer instrumental brilliance of the golden-calf orgy; the laserlike unison-violin phrases that end the opera so movingly, a sound that should pierce Moses’s very being as his spirit crumbles. Instead, the entire opera comes off sounding overcautious, rigid, and drab, criticisms that can also be applied to the Met chorus, which fails to sing this ferociously challenging music with the confidence and accuracy one hopes or expects to hear.

Perhaps Levine’s missionary spirit for Moses und Aron was crushed at some point during the rehearsal period by what he saw developing onstage – this conductor is never at his best when he senses a lost cause unfolding before his eyes. In any case, the Met, which has championed and successfully produced so many hard-sell but artistically important operas in recent years, has trashed a masterpiece.

Let Thy People Go