George Perle, one of America’s best living composers and a hard-nosed analyst of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg), used to contend that Schoenberg actually finished Moses und Aron when penning the last page of act two of that intended three-act opera in 1932, “but he didn’t know it.” Schoenberg himself kept insisting he’d eventually complete his 12-tone monument to an “unimaginable God” almost up to the time of the composer’s death in 1951. (The published score includes the words for the brief third act, but no music for the scene exists beyond a few motivic sketches.)
Enough scholars, conductors, and impresarios have agreed with Perle that the two-act Moses stands on its own to propel the opera into at least the repertory fringe, admittedly more so in Europe than here. The chief obstacles to performance and audience acceptance on either side of the pond have been and still are Schoenberg’s militant serialism (erasing all “normal” melodic and harmonic relationships in major and minor scales) and the (Schoenberg) libretto’s philosophical conflict between Moses’s tongue-tied but brain-boiling comprehension of Jehovah and Aron’s PR expertise in communicating a masses-friendly idea of that invisible deity.
As the years rolled by since the first concert and staged performances of Moses in the mid ’50s, the musical idiom and philosophical clashes gradually grew less problematic. To confine ourselves to the work’s American experience, Sarah Caldwell’s brave, underfunded Opera Company of Boston in 1966 gave Moses und Aron its U.S. premiere. New York first heard the work a few years later, when Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus visited Carnegie Hall. The first New York staging came in 1990, when Christopher Keene conducted a somewhat stripped-down but beautiful production imported from Europe for City Opera. Now, the opera has finally reached the Met for six performances interspersed in the repertory through February 26, with artistic director (and Moses conductor) James Levine’s announced intention to bring it back next season.
Whatever the musical and theatrical difficulties of Schoenberg’s deconstruction of Exodus, Levine’s singers and orchestra, framed within Graham Vick’s intensely poetic production, overcame almost all of them. No surprise there. The Met these days— and only half a handful of other repertory houses in the world— can pull Moses off full-scale. The orchestra, as expected, was a marvel of flexibility and impact, whether raucously goosing the second-act orgy around the disgustingly improvised golden calf, or sonically backlighting the isolation and verbal frustration of Moses with a soaring/falling line, violas and other strings swelling on perhaps the most potent F-sharp in music.
Britain’s John Tomlinson, famous for his Wagnerian bass-baritone roles, made his Met debut by taking on Moses for the first time. Composed as speech-song except for one early line where Moses tells Aron to forget nonessentials (like Schoenbergian speech-song conventions?), the role invites, and got, a fierce, emotional-hilt delivery. In contrast, Aron’s music is fully sung, florid, bel-canto tenor stuff (except for one optional speech-song line in the last scene), and Philip Langridge finessed his not powerful voice into big stretches of legitimately soft singing. He also acted with a chilling smoothness.
According to recent custom, Vick’s production was in modern— if not mod— dress: the elders and priests in beards and fedoras, the women in tight skirts or loose furs as their figures dictated. Paul Brown, who designed sets and costumes, provided pyramids, simple desertscapes, and threatening walls that gave the expanded chorus lots of room to revolt, be pacified, and launch into a thrillingly dance-driven orgy (choreography by Ron Howell). No, the four virgins were not naked, but they demonstrated in their undies that eroticism can exist without nudity. High soprano Jennifer Welch was Virgin No. 1 and also sang brilliantly as the young gung ho woman earlier on. (Schoenberg provided lurid stage directions about the priests’ raping and then stabbing the virgins, but Vick and Levine got around all that by showing only the gasping reaction and letting the notated pianissimi cries of orgasm fill the picture in.)
One production mistake, perhaps the only one— and easy to correct— was to take the six solo voices out of the orchestra pit, where Schoenberg placed them, and have them sing onstage all dressed up in formal concert wear and schlepping their scores. These singers should be apart from the stage characters; they’re not even the offstage group speak-singing God-from-the-burning-bush, although what they sing supplements God’s words. The scores, gowns, and tuxes do alienate the singers from the action, but they also block audience concentration on the opera’s central business.
Still, the Met has finally and just in time filled a 20th-century gap. Next, just for good measure, Roger Sessions’s Montezuma? Please.