The words “unfinished” and “masterpiece” sometimes go together too easily where 20th-century operas are concerned. Few would quibble over that description of Puccini’s Turandot or Berg’s Lulu, but Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is another matter. The two acts that he wrote were completed in 1932, 19 years before his death, which suggests that he was never sure how the opera could end. And, that uncertainty always seems to hover over the torso that’s generally performed today.
Barrie Kosky’s 2015 production for the Berlin Komische Oper, available on Opera Vision, doesn’t completely dispel the feeling that it’s sometimes more theology than theatre, more oratorio than opera, but he makes it work on stage better than any other staging I’ve seen. Kosky approaches this wordy Old Testament drama through Beckett: quotations from Waiting for Godot are projected before each scene, with Moses and Aron themselves characterised as Estragon and Vladimir, while the Godot who never arrives, one assumes, is God. It’s musically superb, too, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, with Robert Hayward and John Daszak as Moses and Aron.
For anyone wanting to sample an unmistakable Schoenberg masterpiece, there’s always Pierrot Lunaire. Available online versions range from Psappha’s straight concert performance of this pioneering music-theatre piece, with Claire Booth as the immaculate soloist (which I reviewed in February), to more or less full stagings, of which the one by the French ensemble Le Balcon (also responsible for the ongoing concert stagings of Stockhausen’s Licht cycle) is the most thought-provoking; it not only has a male reciter, Damien Bigourdan, who personifies the cycle’s white-faced protagonist, but reverts to the original French versions of the texts by Albert Giraud rather than the German translations that Schoenberg set.
The first of the Royal Opera House’s Live from Covent Garden live-streams, available free online until 27 June, was a promising start to this three-concert series. With the performers on the ROH stage facing away from the auditorium, it somehow seemed less austere than the Wigmore Hall’s current lunchtime BBC series. Antonio Pappano accompanied soprano Louise Alder in Britten’s On This Island, while baritone Gerald Finley grouped Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Animal Songs with Britten’s The Crocodile and one of Gerald Finzi’s Shakespeare settings; but the high point for me was tenor Toby Spence’s wonderfully tactful account of George Butterworth’s first set of Shropshire Lad settings, allowing their vocal lines to make their own eloquent point. There was also a pre-recorded pas de deux to Strauss’s Morgen, devised by Wayne McGregor and danced by Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales. Opera only got a look at the end, when Alder sang an aria from Handel’s Alcina, and Spence and Finley joined forces in the famous duet from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers.
My discovery of the month has been one of the finest documentaries on a great musician I’ve ever seen. Directed by Bruno Monsaingeon in 2014, Maurizio Pollini - A Musical Portrait is built around a revealing interview with the usually reticent pianist (in Italian with English subtitles) interlaced with a wealth of dazzling performance footage, especially from the early years of his career, and ranging across his repertoire, from Beethoven and Chopin to Boulez and Stockhausen.
My picks for the week ahead
The first of Scottish Opera’s shorts certainly deserves a viewing when it goes online on 18 June, if only for its intriguing title – The Narcissistic Fish is a three-hander set in a restaurant kitchen, with music by Samuel Bordoli and a libretto by Jenni Fagan. And the second of the Live from Covent Garden series on 20 June should be well worth catching, too; David Butt Philip and Sarah Connolly singing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Schoenberg’s reduced scoring ought to be worth £4.99 in anybody’s money.