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Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
Genoveva - opera in four acts (1850)
Juliane Banse – Genoveva; Shawn Mathey – Golo; Martin Gantner – Siegfried; Cornelia Kalisch – Margaretha; Alfred Muff – Drago; Ruben Drole – Hidulfus; Tomasz Slawinski – Balthasar; Matthew Leigh – Caspar
Extra Chorus and supernumeraries of the Zurich Opera House
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zurich Opera House/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Stage Director: Martin Kušej; Set Design: Rolf Glittenberg; Costumes: Heidi Hackl; Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann; TV Director: Felix Breisach
rec. live, Zurich Opera House, 2008
Sound format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1; Picture format: 16:9
ARTHAUS MUSIC 101327 [146:00]
Experience Classicsonline

A count in bygone days leaves his castle and his wife and joins the king’s army to fight foreign forces. A reliable friend promises to look after the wife but falls in love with her and kisses her passionately when she for some reason faints. Her wet-nurse, who also is a witch, witnesses this and, in order to revenge for having been driven away from the castle, she offers to help the friend to win the wife.
In the next instalment the friend confesses his love to the wife but is rejected. He then spreads a rumour that the wife has an affair with somebody and persuades a man-servant in the castle to creep into the wife’s bedroom to find proof of her infidelity. Stirred up by the witch the inhabitants of the castle force their way into the bedroom, find the servant and kill him. The unfaithful wife is taken to prison.
The count has been wounded in the war and the wet-nurse cum witch hastens there to cure him. She then brings him to her dwellings, where she has a magic mirror. In this mirror one can see what has happened and also what will happen. The count doesn’t want to look in it but when his friend arrives and tells him what has happened at the castle he looks anyway and sees his wife holding out her arms towards the servant. The count breaks the mirror and leaves for the castle. From the broken mirror the servant’s ghost emerges and threatens the witch.
In the final instalment the unfaithful wife is brought by some men from the castle into the forest to be executed. The friend appears and says that he can save her if she runs away with him. She refuses and the men are just about to kill her when a horn-signal is heard and the count rushes into the scene. He has learnt the real truth and now he saves his wife and carries her back to the castle, where the reunited couple is blessed by the bishop, who conveniently drops by.
No, it isn’t a new TV reality series, it is the plot of Robert Schumann’s and Robert Reinick’s opera Genoveva, first performed 25 June 1850 at Stadttheater, Leipzig. The reception was chilly and after a total of three performances it disappeared from the repertoire. Attempts have been made, from Robert Schumann himself as well as others, to improve the libretto but mostly in vain – the work has never got a foothold in the general repertoire of the opera houses, even though there are occasional revivals and it has been recorded a couple of times.
The reason for such efforts is easy to understand. Schumann is one of the most important composers of the Romantic era, a master of vocal music – in the intimate Lieder format – and the music for Genoveva can’t possibly be without merits. I had never heard anything from the opera – bar the overture of course – until just a few months ago I opted for a couple of discs with radio and other non-commercial historic recordings with the legendary dramatic soprano Inge Borkh. On this set there were quite extensive excerpts from a German broadcast in 1950, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Genoveva. In spite of the unexceptional sound it was possible to get a fair impression of the music and I was struck by the inspired melodic invention, the dramatic freshness of some choruses and ensembles and the skilful handling of the orchestra. This was enough to wet the appetite for a complete and modern recording. Listening to this DVD my impressions were confirmed to a certain degree but there were also less attractive features: stretches of recitative that are less than inspired, a generally low dramatic temperature and in the long run a sense of sameness, of monotony. Schumann was a poet, not a dramatist. But there is enough here that is on such an inspired level that it would be a shame to withhold it from the music-loving public, Genoveva’s arias especially: the one in act II O Du, der über Alle wacht and the one in act IV Die letzte Hoffnung schwindet. Both are elegiac as befits a woman in such circumstances, but Margaretha (the witch), Siegfried (the count) and Golo (his friend) have solos with more ‘go’ in and some of the choruses are truly dramatic.
How to present such a mossy story on stage is another matter. It is hardly possible today to play it at face value, in historic costumes and realistic sets – even though it would be worth trying. Martin Kušej chose the opposite extreme: an absurdist chamber-opera with the four main characters more or less locked in in a small white room – a shoebox centre-stage surrounded by darkness, invisible (mostly) chorus, a chair and a door. It is possible to escape through that door but more often than not the characters are on stage even when they dramatically are not there. In positive mood I might interpret this as a drama group trying out the possibilities of a play; in less positive mood I might associate to the day-room in a madhouse. The inexplicable reactions, the sometimes exaggerated gestures and faces, the way they systematically mess up the walls, and themselves, with soot, with blood and poor Genoveva’s thin shift – most of the time she staggers about in underwear – is in the end all smeared.
The curtain rises and the ‘action’ begins the moment the overture starts. Four characters are standing in poses without visible contact. A woman (Genoveva) is combing her long black hair, a man (Golo) is taking notes. None of them looks happy, which is understandable under the circumstances. After a while something seems wrong with the floor – ants? After a further while everybody breaks out laughing – then back to stern depression. Golo takes out a long knife – and then everybody washes their hands. Why all this?
And there are other ‘whys?’ jotted down on my pad:
Why does Golo suddenly climb onto the chair in the middle of the recitative preceding his aria? He sings well!
Why does Genoveva stagger about, on the verge of falling several times, during the following duet with Siegfried?
Why does also Siegfried climb that chair? They both sing well!
Why is Margaretha’s face and arms smeared with soot from the very beginning? She also sings well!

These are just a few samples. Some possible answers gradually dawned on me. Of course Margaretha is an evil person and as in B-films and comic strips the onlooker/reader must be sure at once who is good and who is bad. Golo is clean from the beginning but when he comes out in his true colours his face is also blackened. He actually tries to wipe it away – be a good boy again – but fails.
Of course I’m bantering and readers who have followed me so far have already concluded that the production didn’t appeal to me. But that is not the whole truth. Keep reading!
After some time I reluctantly started to, well, accept the concept is probably too strong a word but at least I found it a liability. In some post-modernist anti-Shakespearean way there was some method in the madness. The characters are alive in a stereotype way with the two women sharply contrasted, wickedness vs purity, Siegfried’s nobility balanced against Golo’s sly scheming. There are still a number of ideas that I simply don’t understand – and I don’t like to need a manual to follow the plot – but if nothing else Martin Kušej has removed thick layers of cobweb. There is not much he can do about the libretto as such and this absurdist treatment at least implies that one also take the absurdities of the text for granted.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the forces of the Zurich Opera House know each other well from many previous productions and if there are idiosyncrasies in the reading I’m not in a position to detect them, since I lack valid comparisons. The solo singing is, as I have already touched upon, excellent but what remains in my memory long afterwards, and what would be my prime incentive to return to this recording – preferably for listening only – is Juliane Banse’s superb reading of the title role. I saw and heard her as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera when she was little more than 25 and a good many years later she sounds just as fresh and looks just as innocently youthful.
The production was recorded live but apart from some applause after the overture and at the end of the performance there are no signs of an audience present. The video director has managed to catch the many oddities of the production without indulging in too many nasty close-ups. The sound and quality of the pictures are everything one could ask from so recent an enterprise.
Göran Forsling


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