Director Reto Nickler's conception for the Vienna State Opera 2006 production of Moses und Aron dispenses with any allusions to ancient Egypt and the Sinai desert, and places the Israelites' flight in what looks disturbingly like Europe of the 1930s, the period when Schoenberg wrote the opera. Nickler doesn't belabor the point or make explicit references to the politics of the era, but planting the suggestion of parallels between the ancient Israelites' escape from slavery and the displacement of the Jews under National Socialism taps into a reservoir of emotional engagement that's inescapable for modern audiences. The composer only completed music for two of the three acts, and the scene of confusion, desolation, and despair following Moses' destruction of the golden calf, which closes the opera, feels eerily prescient of a terrible fate to come. Set and costume designers Wolfgang Gussmann and Susana Mendoza match Schoenberg's dark and anguished score with a first act that's almost entirely black and white.
The sole elements of color are Aron's gold handkerchief, a foreshadowing of the excesses of the second act, and a bank of video monitors that displays the miracles that persuade the Israelites of the reality of Moses' invisible God -- Moses' staff turning into a snake, his hand becoming leprous, and the clear waters of the Nile being transformed into blood. In the second act, when Aron and the Israelites become impatient with Moses' prolonged stay on Mt. Sinai, and give themselves over to the worship of a familiar god -- a golden calf -- the scene erupts with color. The Israelites put on gold formal gowns and suits and worship not a literal calf, but a giant golden sculpture, "ICH." In a theologically profound insight into the worship of God as freedom from the worship of self, Nickler has each Israelite furtively carry a larger-than-life self portrait in the first act, and in the second act, their even larger, colorful portraits fill the walls of the set, as Aron exhorts them to worship the divine within themselves. The portraits disappear only after Moses' furious tirade against idol worship, and the Israelites' repentance.The excellence of the musical and dramatic performances matches the sophistication of the production's concept and design. Franz Grundheber is charismatically riveting and complex as Moses, a man torn between self-doubt, conflicted feelings toward the God whom he is called to present to the people, jealousy of his brother, and a rage that continually percolates just under the surface and occasionally erupts. Tenor Thomas Moser is brilliant as Aron. He sings the punishingly high part with the kind of bel canto assurance and tonal beauty he would bring to Verdi. His Aron is mostly well meaning, but also a subtly arrogant opportunist, who is clearly out of his moral depth in his interactions with his brother. All the soloists are extraordinarily fine, but Alexandru Moisiuc as a Priest, Ildikó Raimondi as a Young girl, and Morten Frank Larsen as Another Man sing and act especially powerfully. The Vienna State Opera Chorus and Slovak Philharmonic Chorus perform with astonishing musical security and dramatic urgency, and Daniele Gatti conducts with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra with lyrical shapeliness that can explode into frightening intensity. Moses und Aron, like Erwartung, reveals Schoenberg as a master of writing for the stage. This inventive and powerful performance should be of strong interest to any fan of modern opera.