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Opera: Doing the Undoable

2 minute read

An orgy? In Boston? Er—, ah—, well now, everyone muttered, that would take a little doing. But doing is Sarah Caldwell’s speciality, and last week she led her Opera Company of Boston in the U.S. premiere of Schoenberg’s epic Moses and Aron. For raw power, fireworks and daring, it was a spectacle that made Bunker Hill look like the Tea Party.

It was daring to schedule the opera in the first place. Big, sprawling and complex, Moses and Aron demands a range of musical and technical expertise that few opera companies could or would attempt. For one thing, the libretto calls for “an orgy of sexual excess,” in which herds of animals are slaughtered and naked men and women run riot. Composer Schoenberg himself ruefully concluded that it was probably “undoable.”

Frozen Blood. Sarah Caldwell began to think so too when, after she scheduled the opera for May, the tenor she had lined up to play Aron backed out. She put it back on the program again six weeks ago, and this time the baritone withdrew. Through it all, the 160-voice chorus kept practicing away, running up production costs that ultimately skyrocketed to $300,000, thus making it one of the most expensive operas ever produced. Finally, Tenor Richard Lewis and Baritone Donald Gramm stepped into the roles of the Biblical brothers, and the promised land was reached.

To accommodate the extravaganza in the cramped former movie theater that the Boston Opera calls home, Set Designer Oliver Smith built ramps and platforms around the orchestra pit. To swell the chorus, 40 extras were enlisted from local gyms and off the street (qualifications: “6 ft. 2 in. and well built”). Everything worked, especially Caldwell’s master stroke of costuming Moses and Aron identically, often pivoting them back to back to underscore the central conflict between the spiritual and material sides of man. A few patrons found the orgy scenes too shocking and tromped out; but Lewis and Gramm performed magnificently, and the orchestra played the thunderous, jaggedly atonal score to perfection. All in all, the production was further proof of the Boston Opera’s growing reputation as the most inventive and adventuresome opera company in the entire U.S.

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