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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Genoveva - Opera in four acts (1847/8, rev. 1850)
Hidulfus, Bishop of Trier - Rodney Gilfry (baritone)
Siegfried, Count Palatine - Oliver Widmer (baritone)
Genoveva, wife of Siegfried - Ruth Ziesak (soprano)
Golo - Deon van der Walt (tenor)
Margaretha - Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo)
Drago, steward - Thomas Quasthoff (baritone)
Balthasar - Hiroyuki Ijichi (bass)
Caspar - Josef Krenmair (baritone)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. 27-30 June 1996, Stefaniensaal, Graz, Austria. DDD
TELDEC 2564691261 [69:46 + 58:28] 
Experience Classicsonline


Schumann’s Genoveva has certainly divided opinion. Slated by the majority of critics Genoveva was Schumann’s only completed opera. Its premiere in 1850 was not a success. Up to the championing of Genoveva by conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt revivals have been as rare as hen’s teeth. The failure of Genoveva was not a great surprise to many observers. Although Schumann had attended theatre productions from his youth and aspired for years to compose an dramatic score he had previously shown little interest in attending opera productions and seems to have had no practical experience of dramatic stage works. The musicologist Edward Dannreuther wrote that Schumann was, “…the least theatrically minded musician that is possible to conceive.” (The Oxford History of Music Vol. VI The Romantic Period  by Edward Dannreuther  Clarendon Press, Oxford (1905) Pg. 31, 34). 

In 1847 Schumann first encountered the text of Friedrich Hebbel’s sentimental five act tragedy Genoveva based on Saint Geneviève of Brabant a heroine of medieval legend. Schumann was enthralled how the dramatist had, “…invested his characters with a powerful psychological realism” (Robert Schumann - His Life and Work by Ronald Taylor Granada Publishing (1985) ISBN: 0586058834  Pg. 256, 258). In addition Schumann was inspired and drew on the earlier dramatic poem Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva, a separate work on the same subject written by Ludwig Tieck. Schumann approached the poet Robert Reinick to write an opera libretto combined from the two sources but an unsatisfied Schumann decided to complete and arrange the libretto himself. At one stage Schumann consulted his friend Wagner about the libretto to Genoveva but failed to heed the expert advice. Composed in bursts of creative activity Schumann completed the score in just over a year with the final bar written in August 1848. 

After some revision to the score the four act opera Genoveva was first produced with Dr. Schumann himself conducting in June 1850 at the Stadt-Theater in Leipzig. This much anticipated event was not a success and after a few performances around various Germany cities the opera failed to gain any hold on the repertoire. Universal acclaim was given however to the Overture which is often played as a stand-alone score. The general consensus over Genoveva is best summed up by the renowned critic Eduard Hanslick who felt that the libretto was, “…weak and uninteresting, particularly in its characterisation of the main figures.” Hanslick thought that the music, “…suffers from the central, incurable condition of being undramatic.” Edward Dannreuther wrote that, “In Genoveva the composer’s power of invention seems to be on the wane. The daring originality, the force and passion of the younger Schumann is gone.”.

One dissenter from the general flow of criticism over Genoveva was the Dublin-born composer and distinguished teacher Sir Charles Villiers Stanford; a fountainhead of the British music scene. From an early age in Dublin, Stanford had admired the works of Schumann and whilst studying in Germany in the mid-1870s he had attended a Leipzig production of Genoveva. Stanford certainly knew and loved opera having attended the first production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. Stanford especially revered Genoveva gaining considerable inspiration from its Romantic precedents in his own works. According to Parry, his colleague at the Royal College of Music, Stanford who was not given to offering praise lightly considered Genoveva an even finer work than many of Wagner’s operas. Stanford staged the first British production of Genoveva in 1893 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London with the pupils of the opera class of the RCM but the reception was rather lukewarm.

I suspect that the present live recording was distilled at concert performances of the score given as apart of the summer ‘Styriarte Festival of Music’ in Graz. Originally this Harnoncourt set was released in 1997 at full price on Teldec 0630-13144-2 complete with handsome packaging that included a comprehensive libretto and translations. Now presented at a budget price on the Teldec Opera Collection label the presentation is nowhere near as lavish. The accompanying booklet states that a libretto can be found here. Non German speakers may have some difficulty in following the route to the actual libretto which is provided in German only. Disappointingly my searches couldn’t find the first act of the opera libretto. It is a sad but all too common omission in opera releases for the listener not to be able fully to understand what is going on unless he speaks the language of origin. I would never knowingly buy an opera set without English translations of the text as understanding the narrative of an opera is of paramount importance. Helpfully there is a synopsis linked to track numbers included in the booklet but it is very condensed.

The Genoveva Overture is a highlight of the opera and has proved to be enduringly popular as an independent work. Maestro Harnoncourt and his Chamber Orchestra of Europe give an enjoyably colourful account of the overture. For additional impact and a feeling of spontaneity I admired the 2006 Leipzig performance of the Genoveva Overture from Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra on Decca 4758352 (c/w Mahler arrangements of Schumann’s Symphonies 2 and 4). 

Schumann’s rather tiresome libretto is universally acknowledged as a distinct disadvantage to Genoveva. This is not an opera that I turn too very often, although, Schumann’s music is attractive there is a lack of winning arias and memorable choruses. In view of this to gain the most enjoyment the plot of the opera really needs to be followed closely. I can draw parallels between Genoveva and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes both operas that strike me as gaining especially from actual productions. For example some operas by say Verdi and Wagner work particularly well on record. By comparison Genoveva and Peter Grimes are far less successful experiences on record alone. Nevertheless in spite of the shortcomings there is some fine singing from Harnoncourt’s impressive cast. Genoveva, the Countess of the Palatinate and wife of Siegfried is outstandingly performed by soprano Ruth Ziesak. The German-born Ziesak has a most assured voice and seems equally comfortable right across her range. I was especially impressed by her clear diction and radiant purity of tone. In her role as the vulnerable young bride Genoveva I felt that Ziesak was convincingly chaste, yielding and submissive to the hostility and false accusations thrown at her. Genoveva’s glorious act two aria O Du, der uber alle wacht is the highlight of the recording for me. In addition Genoveva’s duet O laß es ruh’n, dein Aug, auf mir! where she forgives exonerates Siegfried is also beautifully done. See my review of Ruth Ziesaks exceptional Franz Liszt Lieder recital for Berlin Classics; one of my 2008 Records of the Year’.

Entrusted to look after Genoveva the squire Golo is expressively sung in the heldentenor role by South African-born Deon van der Walt presenting himself assuredly as a love-torn rogue and cowardly traitor. An excellent example is Golo’s expressive act one aria Frieden zieh in meine Brust. Undoubtedly the world of opera lost a very impressive tenor with the gifted Van der Walt’s tragic death in 2005.

The characterful Slovenian mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovšek is bitingly threatening in the role of the sorceress Margaretha, Golo’s erstwhile nurse. Margaretha and Golo deliver real impact in their act one duet Sieh Da, Welch Feiner Rittersmann! Nursing his injuries from fighting the Moors, Count Siegfried of the Palatine, sung by Swiss baritone Oliver Widmer makes the best of the rather inconsequential role. I found Widmer an eager participant with noticeably clear diction. In the minor role of the steward Drago, German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff gives as admirable a performance as one would expect from this great singer.

Under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt the choral forces of the Arnold Schoenberg Choir are enthusiastic and highly competent. The players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe give remarkable attention to detail and their polished playing is most impressive. At times, however, I wanted Harnoncourt to provide additional power and passion to his interpretation. Impressively balanced I found the Teldec sound quality attained a good standard.

Sadly there are very few alternative versions of Genoveva in the catalogue to mention. There is very little to choose between this reissued Harnoncourt recording on Teldec and the convincing 1970 Leipzig set from Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra on Berlin Classics 0020562BC. Harnoncourt has the most impressive Genoveva with Ruth Ziesak staring in the role whilst Masur has the advantage of Peter Schreier in the role of Golo and the peerless Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Siegfried.

Michael Cookson





 


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