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BSO brings prowling Schoenberg opera to life

With a huge chorus, a formidable cast of soloists, and a massive orchestra spread over the stage of Symphony Hall last night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra triumphed in its first ever performance of Arnold Schoenberg's colossal, daunting opera "Moses und Aron." It was a highlight of Levine's local advocacy for a composer alternately feared, reviled, and lionized but never viewed with indifference.

It is still rare to catch a live sighting of Schoenberg's opera, which seems to prowl around the outer edges of the repertoire, widely esteemed but seldom performed. That said, the work's local roots run deep: it was given its American premiere in 1966 by Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston. It is also a work close to Levine's heart and over the years, he has led performances of it at the Met and elsewhere, often with the same lead soloists. Listeners new to the work could not have been in better hands.

The plot is adapted from the book of Exodus: The Lord commands Moses to awaken the Israelites to the existence of the one true God; Moses understands the purity of the monotheistic idea , but he is powerless to convey it to the masses. Aron by contrast cannot grasp the pure God idea as deeply , but he is an effective leader who can move the Israelites to action. Once liberated from slavery, the Israelites grow restless waiting in the desert; Aron conjures a Golden Calf and a deliriously violent orgy ensues. An infuriated Moses destroys the Golden Calf and the second act ends with his concession of failure and his pained, desperate lament: "Oh word, you word that I lack!"

For all of its grandeur, "Moses und Aron" remains a fragment. Schoenberg composed the first two acts between 1930 and 1932, but he fled Nazi Germany shortly after Hitler's rise to power and the music for the third act was never written.

It is probably best that way. In its incomplete form, the opera remains a haunting meditation on the tension between a pure spiritual idea -- whether religious or artistic -- and its expression through images or through language that is always imprecise, inadequate, or worse. Indeed the opera can be seen as linked to the crisis of expression that plagued so many modernists in the early decades of the 20th century, as language came to be viewed as debased, words as floating distant from the things they signified. Listening to Schoenberg's Moses gasp and struggle to make himself understood, one might think of Hofmannsthal's Lord Chandos, who had stared into the linguistic abyss years earlier, trying to speak only to find the words disintegrating in his mouth "like rotten mushrooms."

But of course what gives this parable its weight and power is Schoenberg's bracing 12-tone score, some of the most urgent and vital music that he ever composed. The part of Moses is written in Sprechstimme, a vocal style between speech and song. Sir John Tomlinson was magnificent in this role, his somber declarations chiseled into the music around him. Aron was sung by the sweet-toned tenor Philip Langridge, who made the giant leaps in the vocal part seem effortless. Sergei Koptchak was a standout among the other soloists , but at the true heart of this performance was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which brought this fiercely difficult music to life with riveting delivery and admirable polish. Levine led the proceedings with expert pacing. If the Golden Calf orgy did not pack the visceral punch of other performances he has led at the Met, he made up for it with a luminous ending that held the hall in a deep silence. After everything that had transpired, the moment had an eloquence all its own.

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