Daniel Barenboim opened the 2004 Festtage of the Berlin State Opera with Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, on Sunday, 4 April. It was the first time he had conducted the work. Those in the vicinity of Berlin, or who have the chance to be, when the production returns in June and July should not hesitate. The first performance was excellent in every respect.
My judgement may have been clouded (enhanced?) by the fact that this was my first opportunity to see the work in the theatre — indeed, to hear it live. But what must have been a far more daunting 'first' for Barenboim seemed to hold little fears for him. He had the measure not only of the score but of its dramatic impact, his reading proving commendably precise, though never lacking in warmth or tonal lustre. His orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, confirmed that it was a truly great ensemble, sounding every inch the equal of the Berlin Philharmonic - and several inches more traditionally 'German': very much closer to the sound one might imagine Schoenberg expecting from a Berlin orchestra of the 1930s. Equally to the point, it sounded every inch the equal of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Boulez's second recording, a daunting precedent indeed.
The production, by Intendant Peter Mussbach, was well considered, playing on the connected themes of blindness and light and dark (analogues for the difficulties of representation and expression which lie at the very heart of the work). Something which ought to be a matter of course, but which rarely is, was the producer's consideration of and response to the music and its structure, as well as to the text. A small point but a telling one, was the coincidence of light-stick manoeuvring (finding one's way in the political and religious dark) with the col legno of the strings passages during the Second Act. The political issues central to the opera were confronted, but they never threatened to become over-didactic. Dictatorship, political persuasion, personal integrity, the mood of the crowd or mob: all were present, musically and visually.
The roles of the two antagonists brought some very fine singing from Willard White and Thomas Moser. Moser achieved the feat, extraordinary but an absolute dramatic necessity, of making Aron's bel canto appear as if it were slipping off his tongue with all the ease in the world. The ideal audience has to believe in Aron, to be seduced by him, but also to hold on to its suspicions. Here it could. The strength and conviction of White's portrayal of Moses were equally remarkable, if anything even more so. This really was Moses: implacable, infuriating, but possessed of a burning integrity that could ultimately brook no response.
And caught between the brothers, of course, was the chorus. It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to conceive of finer choral singing: a tremendous full sound, sometimes overwhelming, yet commanding a precision on the verge of implausibility for a group of that size. Every member of the chorus was called on to act, individually and corporately; every member appeared to do just that. The choral sound perfectly complemented that of the orchestra and brought home to the listener just how much Schoenberg owed to Brahms and to Bach, above all to the Bach of the Passions.
For this performance showed Moses to be a great drama, not a theoretical work. Twelve-note technique was not incidental; nor was it the defining feature. Schoenberg's method was part of the drama, without being the point of the drama. The composer's manipulation of the series was shown, rightly, to be as important as, but not more important than, the developmental variation in the work of his great predecessors. Theodor Adorno once wrote admiringly of Schoenberg's Music for an Imaginary Film-scene as constituting a primer in twelve-note technique; even Adorno might have blanched at ascribing that role to Moses und Aron. Yet, in this case, one was tempted to do so — after the event, perhaps, since the drama was all that mattered at the time.
If, as I occasionally do, one despairs of Schoenberg being granted his due this side of Jacob's Ladder, herein lay a performance truly to impart hope.