RUBINSTEIN Moses (Jurowski)
Moses and the Israelites were cursed with 40 years’ wandering in the wilderness. Those who survive the three CDs of Anton Rubinstein’s biblical epic may feel that the chosen people got off lightly. This was Rubinstein’s great labour of love, and it took him seven years, from 1884 to 1891, to write. But, saddled with a flat, wordy and extraordinarily repetitive German libretto by Salomon Hermann Mosenthal, the pianist and composer was working with duff material.
Written for a suitably huge cast of characters and a chorus who have to be Egyptians, Israelites, Moabites, heavenly voices and the spirits of hell, Moses also needed a powerful (or moneyed) backer. It didn’t get one and was never performed in full on stage. More than 100 years on, conductor Michail Jurowski spearheaded this recording and associated concert performance, with the backing of Poland’s Ministry of Culture. ‘The world needs someone like Moses today’, says Jurowski. Possibly, but sadly we don’t need an opera like Moses.
Rubinstein had certainly been listening to his German Romantic classics, as the dominant metre of the opera is the gentle throb of Mendelssohn – and his pulsing, prolonged choral climaxes – with a dash of Wagner (Lohengrin or Tannhauser) for some of the more charged or spiritual moments. This broad-brush technique is used to chart all the key moments in Moses’s life, from the moment that he’s found in the river as a baby to when he kills the overseer, presides over the plagues, parts the Red Sea, is given the Ten Commandments and finally hands over the reins of power to Joshua.
Almost unerringly, however, Mosenthal and Rubinstein seem to miss the dramatic or expressive potential of these episodes in favour of stodgy call-and-response stand-offs between crowds, with different protagonists (Miriam, Aaron, the Voice of God) coming in and out of the canvas in a bid to move things on. Then everyone ends up rejoicing. Events are explained, not depicted. It is all very by-the-book (literally), foursquare and lacking spontaneity, and nothing is allowed to register on a human level. It would take Schoenberg to interrogate the complicated story of Moses – the prophet who does, but cannot persuade – with real ingenuity and theatrical ambiguity.
Although Rubinstein’s allocation of voice parts is confusing – Moses is a baritone, Aaron is a bass, the voice of God and the Pharaoh double up as heroic tenors – Jurowski’s cast are all fully committed, as is the Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Artos Children’s Choir. As Miriam, Chen Reiss’s buttery soprano is a shaft of light in the gloom, although even her famous song of deliverance after the parting of the Red Sea isn’t melodically inspired. This rediscovered opera isn’t manna from heaven; it’s very thin gruel.