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BSO brings daunting Schoenberg opera to life

Excerpted from late editions of yesterday's Globe

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

It is 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, it is 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 principal soloists. Listeners new to the work could not have been in better hands.

The plot is adapted from 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 unable to convey it to the masses. Aron, by contrast, cannot grasp the pure idea, but he is an effective leader who can move the Israelites to action. Once liberated, they 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 pained concession of failure: "Oh word, you word that I lack!"

For all of its grandeur, "Moses und Aron" remains a fragment; the music for the third act was never written, but 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.

But of course what gives this parable its weight and power is Schoenberg's bracing 12-tone score. 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 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 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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