18 Aug 2010

Schumann’s Genoveva

Robert Schumann’s only opera Genoveva (1850) is best known as a failure in its time and has since fallen into the list of succès d’estime, but with this new release, based on a production intended for television, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt champions the work in his second recording of the score.

The plot of Genoveva is based on legendary Genevieve de Brabant, who is associated with the historic thirteenth-century figure Marie de Brabant, who was married to Louis II of Bavaria. The story concerns the machinations of Golo to seduce Genoveva, and when she spurns him, Golo decides to convince her husband Siegfried to murder her as punishment for infidelity. While Golo and the sorceress Margaretha conspire to put forth this scheme, Siegfried ultimately learns the truth and spares Genoveva. While some connect this story with that of Elsa of Brabant, as set in music as Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, various elements of the narrative suggest deeper, symbolic elements at work, with a magic mirror, the apparition of the Virgin Mary, the ghost of Drago, a member of the household whose death is the result of Golo’s schemes (and thus a kind of Doppelgänger), to suggest a rather modern fairy tale. The libretto is by Robert Reinick and Schumann himself, rather than adapted from the versions that Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Hebbel had already published. The inspiration Schumann had taken from Wagner for setting a German legend to music seems connected to his personal involvement with the text.

Among the handful of recordings of this work, the present performance is the only staged one, and it gives a sense of the opera as Schumann intended it. While it is possible to appreciate the score as a sound recording, the full impact of the score is possible only when it is seen on stage. It is a neglected work that deserves rehearing, a case that Harnoncourt makes in this intensive recording and which benefits from the modernist staging of the score. While it is possible to dispute the use of modern dress for this opera, a case may also be made for disallowing the trappings of costume drama so as not to compromise the music with connotations that might draw other associations into this relatively unfamiliar work. (The overture is family from concert performances, and it receives an effective reading here.)

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Juliane Banse in the title role, who performs the role with appropriate expression and suitable emotion. When necessary, her exclamations punctuate the line fittingly, and her phrasing underscores the text well. The extended duet with Golo in the second act is persuasive, as the virtuous Genoveva resists the lust of Golo, and it is not just phrasing that makes the difference, but the pacing between Banse and Mathey, which allow the lines to combine well. Banse is convincing as Genoveva, with her fine musical presence supported by the physical portrayal of her character. As Siegfried’s deceitful friend Golo, Mathey creates the character with appropriate passion and without overplaying the lecherous elements. His Golo is self-serving, with the lust driven by jealously, rather than anything else, and Mathey contrasts well Martin Gantner’s characterization of the duped husband Siegfried.

Supported by the Cornelia Kallische as the sorceress Margaretha, the principals work together well in establishing a musical tension and emotional pitch that makes this performance compelling. While it may be difficult to support the contention in the liner notes about Genoveva being the most significant opera of the second half of the nineteenth century, the sustained scenes and anticipate the innovation Wagner would introduce fifteen years later in Tristan und Isolde, and as much as comparisons can be made between Schumann’s opera and Wagner’s earlier score for Lohengrin, the emotional situation in Genoveva has a relationship to the groundbreaking score Wagner would compose in Tristan.

It is laudable to find this production available both in Blu-ray and DVD formats, so that both media can take advantage of this powerful work. Blu-ray offers the refinements of visual display and audio that support the fine efforts of Harnoncourt in creating an excellent performance that merits attention. As the celebrations of Schumann include reissues of fine recordings of the composer’s more familiar works, Harnoncourt deserves congratulations for his efforts to bring out a score that is not familiar yet, through his shaping of Genoveva makes a case for knowing this score better.

James L. Zychowicz