Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron and “Regietheater”

John Gibbons in Holde Kunst refers to an excellent article by Heather MacDonald which criticizes the current European practice of updating operatic stagings with material not traditionally associated with the particular opera in question. This updating tends to substitute the director’s individual social and political preferences for the vision of the composer and librettist.

I am more open to this kind of meddling than some of the more conservative commentary I’ve read if the stage direction does not directly contradict the spirit or the plot of the opera and the characters retain their personalities and motivations as communicated by the libretto and score. The “Abduction from the Seraglio” as described by MacDonald seems to violate these principles because the gratuitous sex and violence contradicts the character of Bassa Selim, contradicts the comic tone of the opera, and directly contradicts the words of one of Konstanze’s arias. I find this impermissible because the stage action obliterates the actual drama of the opera.

Similarly the new Meistersinger violates this rule- Hans Sachs evolving into Hitler contradicts Wagner’s characterization. The director may have a particular point of view about this opera in relation to European history, but that point of view has nothing to do with the actual opera. This type of staging is a new creation by the director that uses a famous opera as an element of the creation, but it is not a presentation of the actual opera.

The modern versions of Don Giovanni that portray the Don’s licentiousness in graphic visuals are examples of acceptable new staging , although perhaps repugnant to particular individuals. If the Don is shown masturbating while listening to an aria, that portrayal may be sensationalism but it does not contradict the character of the Don and hence doesn’t detract from the drama. Societal “good taste” should not limit a director. Only the dramatic parameters set forth by the opera itself should bind the director.

Here is the beginning of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron from a 2006 Vienna Opera production. Sorry there’s no subtitles but the extraordinary music doesn’t need them. I don’t have the libretto in hand but I think this is supposed to be Moses talking to God through the burning bush:

This is why “regietheater” is a difficult issue-these images seem to contradict the text but without knowing the text or language the music seems the perfect compliment to images of refugees in the context of the holocaust. Of course there may be parallels between Exodus and the holocaust, but the overriding guide is the intention of Schoenberg who wrote both music and libretto.

This article by David Pountney advocates a production theory of Moses and Aron that suggests that the director must alter the opera to suit modern taste because Moses is a religious fundamentalist and since both Moslem and Christian fundamentalists are a threat to European culture the director must stage this opera in order to portray Moses in a bad light and portray the people who orgy around the golden calf in a good light, etc. In other words the stage direction should be a form of censorship or tendentious editing to protect the public from Schoenberg’s atavistic monotheistic advocacy of the oppressor Moses. The author states:

“When all is said and done, despite its rank as a great work of art, however, the opera Moses and Aron presents a false political and ideological antithesis in the modern context. The alternative to dogmatic, monotheistic belief is not anarchy and perversion. The fact is, neither of the two poles is commensurate with European culture. This rests first and foremost on freedom: freedom of thought, speech and belief, which demands a constant and delicate balance between authority and anarchy. This freedom was once most certainly worth fighting for, and it is most definitely also worth continuing to protect with eternal and unswerving vigilance in the future. “

My point is that even if this is true, it has nothing to do with the opera-I want to see the opera as Schoenberg intended and I don’t need a director using his craft to censor the drama as opposed to presenting the drama as the composer intended.

Here’s more of Moses and Aron on youtube, a modern version of the golden calf which embodies all the issues discussed:

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One Response to “Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron and “Regietheater””

  1. Bonnie Gibbons Says:

    I tend to say that directorial “creativity” is not bad… as long as it works. And you’ve provided a pretty decent criterion for what works: does it illuminate or contradict the source material? I’ll provide a great film example: Patricia Rozema’s film “Mansfield Park” based on the Jane Austen novel. Some readers HATE the heroine, Fanny Price due to her meekness and passivity. It would be really cool to see some ingenius director rise to that challenge. This director… made Fanny FEISTY! Rather like doing “Cats” but using dogs because you hate cats. She then titled the file “Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park” when the film should have been called “What Patricia Rozema wishes Jane Austen had written in Mansfield Park.” This is much worse than last year’s “Pride and Prejudice which makes it seem like the director merely didn’t understand the book, and he did with sincerity the stuff that Austen was actually mocking. Rozema actively disliked the book, so why bother to adapt it?

    Same question with these opera directors. I often wonder if they LIKED the opera given what some of them do with it.

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