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What Moses Imposes 

New York City Opera's Ariodante: Elegance, balance

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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Photo by Carol Rosegg
MOSES UND ARON IS ON MY CONSCIENCE. Arnold Schoenberg's opera, imposing even in its unfinished state, accorded unquestioned masterpiece recognition on the strength of its composer's own eminence, is still -- after 65 years -- so seldom performed that its
few revivals stand as major events. It made its belated first appearance at New York's Metropolitan Opera last season, and was revived there (as the first of a scheduled supercautious mere three performances) last week. The audience was sparse, but all the right people attended, and the cheering at the end was long and loud. The crowd also included an unusually large contingent of teenagers, there -- as several told me -- on their grandparents' subscription tickets. Schoenberg's music may have lost its innovative edge over the years, but not its power to strike terror into the hearts of grandparents.

This was my third staged Moses, after the American premiere under Sarah Caldwell in 1966 (which I described in print as "live Cinerama") and Achim Freyer's stunning production (all in desert colors) at the New York City Opera in 1990. The work holds no terrors for me, and I have no problems with its stature, the power of Schoenberg's conception and the intensity of its thinking, the impact of its raw theatricality. Try as I might, however, I cannot love it. I am not reached by the gruff speech-song of the Moses character (as I am, for example, by the same device in the 20-years-earlier Pierrot Lunaire). I hear no lyric strength in Aron's rhapsodizing (as I do in the last two string quartets, roughly contemporaneous with the opera). Nothing in the protracted orgy music tells me about the profane passions of that scene, not even its sour waltz-parodies; Richard Strauss' dance for Salome, lousier music but one-third the length, does the job with greater efficiency.

Against all that I value in Schoenberg -- the integrity of his musical mind, the greatness of much of his music -- I am troubled by my admire-but-don't-like take on this one monumental score. The subject matter of Moses und Aron is not the biblical yarn so nicely projected in Cecil B. De Mille­style epics; it is a discourse on the nature of faith, of Jewishness in crisis -- matters of great concern in the conscience of the Jewish-turned-Protestant Schoenberg in a Germany already wracked by the war cries of Hitler's thugs. Could it be that musical considerations, in this work, seemed of less consequence to Schoenberg than text? Could it even be that his failure to compose the music for the third act, while allowing publication of his complete text, reflected his own priorities?

No opera company undertakes a Moses und Aron without some strong ideas on production; it is to the Met's credit that, having decided to risk inevitable empty seats, it has given the work a staging of comparable brilliance and innovation. On a stage slashed with broad color bands, Graham Vick has created huge living modules of singers (principals and chorus) in taut clusters, dressed in contemporary Hassidic Orthodoxy: grungy black suits and hats, decrepit footwear, proclaiming the timelessness of suffering and bondage. John Tomlinson intoned the blunt, brutal lines of Moses; Philip Langridge, the sly, sinuous music of Aron. A large cast was involved, including six singers in modern black tie on chairs downstage, as the Voice of God. And through it all rang the resonance of the Met's orchestra under James Levine, pleading the cause of Schoenberg's troubled opera with stunning eloquence.

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ACROSS LINCOLN CENTER'S PLAZA, THE New York City Opera proved to me on two occasions the exceptional current good health of the company. Paul Kellogg, who is also head of the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York, has parlayed the work of both companies onto an artistic level greater than its parts. On one happy night at the City Opera, I saw the company's first-ever Il Viaggio a Reims, Rossini's curious occasion-piece with its almost-nonexistent plot and its glorious music that includes ensembles that tickle every rib within earshot. Rossini had composed the work for a star-studded Parisian company; the City Opera ensemble wasn't quite that, but the precision of its quicksilver vocal work, under George Manahan's leadership, still made for a delightful evening. In the excellent cast I spotted our own Paula Rasmussen, of many L.A. Opera triumphs, singing enchantingly as a man-eating Polish countess.

The City Opera continues its good services toward new opera; a triple bill of short operas by three composers, all of them set in Central Park, got critical raves at Glimmerglass this summer and is already sold out at the New York State Theater for later this season. Surprisingly, the company has also emerged as a force for Handel operas: two seasons ago with Stephen Wadsworth's production of Xerxes that showed in Los Angeles, last season with Partenope, and last week with Ariodante.

The City Opera Handel is not quite the purist versions enshrined on the Harmonia Mundi discs, but it also doesn't stray so far as the 1966 Giulio Cesare that made stars out of Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle at drastic cost to historical integrity. For the Ariodante, Jane Glover led an ensemble of contemporary strings, winds and brass with harpsichord in an elegantly phrased, impeccably balanced performance. There were a few cuts, mostly repeats and da capos. The cast, splendidly integrated, sang with intelligent awareness of the style, but with enough latter-day vibrance to make dramatic sense out of the deceptions, reconciliations and lovemaking of the drama. Britain's Sarah Connolly sang the title role marvelously, but the day's star, as the villainous Polinesso, was the same countertenor, Bejun Mehta, who triumphed so magnificently in another Handel in Santa Barbara this summer. Mehta's program bio listed him as the Tolomeo in a Los Angeles Opera Giulio Cesare at some unspecified future date. Pray it's not a typo.

Some ink has been spilled over the new electronic equipment recently installed in the State Theater to correct certain long-standing acoustic problems. Management has taken great care to describe the installation not as "amplification" (a four-letter word in critical circles, more appropriate to the brutally cranked-up sound in Broadway theaters) but as "enhancement." So far the response has ranged from "okay" to "can't hear the difference." Having no memories of State Theater acoustics for the past few years, I can only report that the sounds I heard in Handel and Rossini were bright, clear and nicely balanced between stage and pit. One chorus in the Handel was sung offstage and piped into the hall; it sounded canned, as indeed it was. Everything else in the performance sounded alive and fresh, as indeed it was.

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