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SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
Genoveva - opera in four acts (1850)
Banse – Genoveva; Shawn Mathey – Golo; Martin Gantner – Siegfried;
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
MUSIC 101327 [146:00]
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
there are other ‘whys?’ jotted down on my pad:
does Golo suddenly climb onto the chair in the middle
of the recitative preceding his aria? He sings well!
does Genoveva stagger about, on the verge of falling
several times, during the following duet with Siegfried?
does also Siegfried climb that chair? They both sing
is Margaretha’s face and arms smeared with soot from
the very beginning? She also sings well!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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