This production of Moses und Aron, marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, neither dodges nor ducks the implications of the Holocaust for Berlin, the city in which the Komische Oper is based, and also the city from which Schoenberg was exiled in 1933 from his post as Director of Composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts. Vladimir Jurowski, the conductor of this searing and soul-searching interpretation, has a strong link with the Komische, as his father Mikhail frequently conducted here, and he himself served as its First Kapellmeister from 1998 to 2001.

The set was abstract, with a lowered roof, reminiscent of an airport lounge, with twelve openings for lights. Moses, played with intensity, integrity and complete command of Sprechstimme by Robert Hayward, looked like an elderly Sigmund Freud in top hat, beard and grandad glasses, while Aron, sung by John Daszak, was slick in a blue jacket and slacks. Both were intentionally dressed to look like a pair of failed stage conjurors, or perhaps a couple of old tramps thinking fondly back to better days. A projection onto the front cloth at the opening of the show declared a reference to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: Moses was Estragon, Aron was Vladimir, and God was Godot.

Moses und Aron is a philosophical debate surrounding the issues of leadership, law and religious imagery. After receiving instructions from the voices of the Burning Bush, Moses conveys them to Aron, who works out a way of communicating the message to the people, so that they will follow them out of their captivity in Egypt. But whilst Moses is absent upon Mount Horeb, communicating with God and receiving the tablets of the law, the Jews become restless and Aron supplies them with a statue of a golden calf.

Schoenberg himself described the dilemmas of the plot in psychological terms, referring to the law Moses receives as arising “by themselves, out of his own thoughts”. Moses, in the opera, has a stammer, and finds it difficult to articulate his thoughts. Therefore he depends upon Aron, the glib wordsmith and image manipulator, to express them in a persuasive fashion. In this production, by Australian director Barrie Kosky, the Komische Oper’s Artistic Director, Aron is a stage conjuror, who draws snakes out of the mouth of Moses, his stooge, and then makes him drool blood which, caught in a cup, is then miraculously transformed into water.  Moses’ top hat continuously stands in for the magician’s magic device, and all sorts of objects emerge from it before the prophet makes his way to the mountain.

The second act revolves around the great spectacle of the Dance around the Golden Calf. Here Kosky relies heavily (and effectively) on the choreography of Hakan T. Aslan, who interprets the Golden Calf as a series of four dancers, a quartet of three men and a woman, with golden calves, chests, bosoms and everything else, their heads bedecked with Las Vegas-style ostrich plumes.

As the chorus members begin their dance, their numbers double in a startling manner, as they are partnered by their own life-sized puppets, which they manipulate as if the dummies too were part of the dance. Whereas the chorus is dressed in modern street clothes, the dummies wear all sorts of traditional Jewish costumes: rabbis in prayer-shawls and fur hats, women in wigs and headscarves, children with ear-locks and skullcaps, as well as soldiers in military fatigues. As the dance comes to its bacchanalian climax, the puppets are flung into a heap, which quickly takes on the semblance of a huge pile of dead bodies, while the Golden Calf herself, now a bare-breasted old woman with a tragic howling face, stands before them and laments their unnecessary deaths. It was hard to avoid a reading (confirmed by consulting Exodus 32:28) that the Jewish victims of Moses’ wrath had brought their destruction upon themselves.

Moses bears the Ten Commandments, not on tablets but branded onto his body. Hayward portrayed Moses’ pain, both at the receiving of the law and its reception by the people on his return, with burning passion. Daszak’s Aron was full of lyrical expression, even as he made excuses for the people and their misdeeds. All the way through, Vladimir Jurowski led chorus, soloists and orchestra with a command of Schoenberg’s complex twelve-tone score that made it sound as logical and inevitable as a Beethoven symphony.

A moment of relief after the emotional upheavals of the work came at the very end, when Kosky stepped forward (after the main curtain call) to announce that the Komische Oper Berlin had won Best Company from the International Opera Awards in London, news greeted with great enthusiasm by company and audience alike.