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Portfolio | Crossing the desert

Moses und Aron in rehearsal — By Simon Hatab

“O word, thou word that I lack!” These words, uttered by Moses in the face of his inability to convince the Israelite people, could also be taken as a metaphor for all a stage director's work: to create a production, stage directors have purely theatrical means of expression at their disposal, namely, movement, space and silence… But not words. They must give up their own words to use another's words: words which may have been written centuries before them.

It’s been five weeks since rehearsals for Moses und Aron began and the presentation of this monumental work on the Bastille stage is "the" event of the beginning of the new season. A five-week-long artistic journey which Romeo Castellucci, the soloists, the Orchestra and Chorus—conducted by Philippe Jordan and José Luis Basso respectively—together with all the teams of the Opera have embarked upon, drawing them ever closer to the Première. Five weeks during which, far from the shock images with which his name is usually associated, the director patiently endeavours to construct his production from rehearsal into dialogue and from dialogue into rehearsal. The photographer Elena Bauer has captured the atmosphere of these sessions and transposed Romeo Castellucci’s intentions to images.


John Graham-Hall (Aron) et Thomas Johannes Mayer (Moses )
John Graham-Hall (Aron) et Thomas Johannes Mayer (Moses ) © Elena Bauer

Inspired by Exodus and the Book of Numbers, Schönberg’s opera recounts Moses’ vocation, and how he is entrusted by the Burning Bush with the mission of freeing the people of Israel. However, given the prophet's inability to communicate, his brother Aron becomes his voice. The two brothers' opposition lies at the very heart of the work: Moses is able to understand divine thought but can neither express it nor pass it on. Aron has mastered the art of speaking but he adulterates the idea as soon as it he expresses it. There is a conflict between mind and matter, idea and its representation, thought and word…


© Elena Bauer

Collectively, the people constitute the third character in this drama: the uprooted Israelites represent the human community. As a result, the opera calls for an exceptional number of chorus members—88—who play a leading dramatic role throughout the work. Directing the 88 Chorus members on stage is certainly one of the challenges of this production. In rehearsal, Romeo Castellucci explores the effects the sheer size of the chorus offers him: sometimes forming them into a geometric square advancing in tight formation, sometimes into the shape of a needle moving across the dial of time. In the second act, when Moses has gone off into the wilderness and rebellion is growling, the director creates some unnerving effects by positioning the mass of people at the front of the stage like a reservoir of water behind a dam. Ultimately the dam gives way, unleashing a violent torrent of people into the theatre.


© Elena Bauer

“It’s as if I’m in a sculptor’s studio. I have to work the material in order to give it constantly changing form, just like this people which is forever changing.” From this point of view, Romeo Castellucci might seem closer to Aron: the man who fashions the people. But he is also Moses: in rehearsal, he listens more than he talks. The teams of the Opera have noticed his unique way of working: he starts with an idea – often an image – and then confronts it with its realization on stage. But in the end, he always comes back to the idea.


© Elena Bauer

“Above all, I wanted to avoid being trapped by the scenography. So I thought of something which doesn’t exist, a non-place that would follow the movements of Moses for whom the idea takes precedence over all else. In the first act, the space does not exist: the desert has invaded our very perceptions of the set. Then, when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Tablets of Law, something happens: the world, which until then has existed deep in his mind, becomes real. This reality scandalises Moses for in it he sees the corruption of the idea of God: For him, the body itself is a stain. The second act is thus about destroying the purity of the first”.


© Elena Bauer

The desert that the people of Israel must cross is first and foremost a linguistic one: “The language of a people is like a refuge, a shared house. When people can no longer communicate with each other, when a gulf develops between them, language becomes a desert”.


© Elena Bauer

“It's a work that questions the need for the image, the need to abandon the image, to go beyond the image”.


© Elena Bauer

Schönberg never wrote the music for the third act: Moses und Aron remains an unfinished work, amputated of its end which should have recounted the death of Aron and the triumph of the idea over its adulteration. But for Romeo Castelluci, this was not by chance. The director sees it as a Freudian slip rather than a missing act, which brings the question of the unrepresentable, posed throughout the work, to a conclusion: “It is from the vantage point of this third act that we must contemplate the entire opera”.


Simon Hatab is opera dramaturg at the Paris National Opera.

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