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).
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.
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.”.
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.
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
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.
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).
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 Ziesak’s exceptional
Franz Liszt Lieder recital for Berlin Classics; one of
my 2008 ‘Records of the Year’.
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.
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.
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.
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.