Robert Schumann - Genoveva
Opernhaus Zürich, 2008
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Martin Kušej, Juliane Banse, Shawn Mathey, Martin Gantner, Cornelia Kallisch, Alfred Muff, Ruben Drole, Tomasz Slawinski, Matthew Leigh
Genoveva (1850), Robert Schumann’s only opera, was composed around the same time that Richard Wagner was working on material for Lohengrin and the Ring of the Niebelungen and it represents an interesting alternative view of how folklore, mythology and legends could be used as an expression of essential Germanic characteristics elevated through the art of the opera or music drama. Genoveva however was regarded as a failure when it was first produced, and Schumann would consequently never compose another opera, so it’s the Wagnerian model that has succeeded as the dominant influence, but Schumann’s approach would appear to be more deeply rooted in relating these characteristics elevated in mythology back down to the nature of the individual, and that consequently makes the story of Genoveva rather an interesting one.
Ostensibly, the work is an account of the medieval legend of the martyrdom of St Genevieve, the story promoting the virtues of truth and purity when Genoveva, the Countess of Brabant, is unjustly accused of infidelity, imprisoned and (in the original legend) executed only for her innocence later to be discovered. Schumann’s approach to the work is rather more complicated in its focus and in its unconventional depiction of the varied characters. In the story, Genoveva rejects the advances of her head servant Golo while her husband Siegfried is away fighting in Charles Martel’s crusade against the Saracen army of Abdur Rahman that is threatening to invade Europe. Consumed by desire for the Count’s wife and smarting from her rejection, Golo conspires to have Genoveva denounced for adultery by arranging for another servant, an old man, Drago, to be found in her bedroom. While one should expect sympathy to lie with the unjustly maligned Genoveva and with the husband whose trust has been abused by his servant, a large part of the opera is given over to consideration of the “lower orders”, giving depth to Golo, Margaretha and Drago, and it’s there that we find, perhaps, more interesting facets of human nature and German character.
That approach is emphasised very much in Martin Kušej’s staging of the rarely performed work for the Zurich Opernhaus in 2008. As with his De Nederlandse productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Der Fliegende Höllander, and perhaps even in his Bayerische Staatsoper production of Rusalka, there’s a sense of class conflict within the consuming passions that is emphasised also in Kušej’s Genoveva. Using a boxed-in set of pure white walls (although they don’t stay that way for long), the set design bears little resemblance to the medieval period setting of the work. Within this space, the four figures of the central drama are often present, even if they aren’t required to be on the stage. In the case of Siegfried, for example, even though we know he’s gone to fight in the crusades in Act II, he’s physically still present there on the stage while the drama unfolds between Golo and Genoveva, even if he doesn’t take part in the action. It’s a rather avant-garde Brechtian theatrical device, but it serves to keep the focus on the drama and the overheated emotions between each of the characters – other action usually takes place off to the sides of the boxed area – showing that the influence or “presence” of the key players is important, even if they aren’t actually there.
Kušej also makes use of his now trademark shock tactics of minor nudity and plenty of blood also to tremendous effect. Distancing techniques – the characters laughing uncontrollably during the overture, squashing invisible insects and wrestling with a slippery dead fish – are used to suggest that the libretto shouldn’t be taken entirely literally when Siegfried refers to Genoveva as “a woman of true German stock”, while she for her part observes that it’s “a blessing to be the wife of a hero”, and Schumann’s score would tend to suggest that this indeed shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. While such aspirations are noble, and one would be accustomed to accepting them as such in a Wagner opera, there are characters of lower orders present in Schumann’s opera with genuine grievances about their treatment and station, even if their means of wresting back some kind of justice can only be achieved through violence and subversion. Without taking anything away from the noble characteristics of Genoveva then (Siegfried is shown in a less heroic light by Schumann and certainly in Kušej’s staging, enjoying the pleasures of the witch Margaretha at the opening of Act III), the suggestion is perhaps that these figures have a voice that needs to be heard if such actions are to be avoided.
Kušej accordingly sets the opera in Schumann’s own period to reflect the social and political climate as he would have known it around 1848. Whether you buy into the devices and techniques employed by the director, the staging nonetheless has a striking, distinctive look that commands attention where the drama as it is outlined in the libretto ordinarily might not. Genoveva is not considered to be a dramatically strong work, and the criticism is often levelled against it that it’s a failed work because of this, so it’s even more to the credit of Kušej’s staging that it better reveals the distinctions of the characterisation that are clearly there. It is perhaps true that, musically at least, Schumann doesn’t manage to find a distinct voice for each of the characters – musically, it’s restrained, with few grand gestures and only some gentle choruses to punctuate the long monologues – but considerable impact can be drawn from the subject with commitment from the performers and a conductor who is keen to get to the heart of an important but underrated work in the history of German opera.
Fortunately, it has that not only with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the helm and a fine performance of the orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich, but in the singing of an exceptionally fine and committed cast who are often called upon to sing in difficult positions and occasionally perform somewhat undignified or just plain bizarre actions. Juliane Banse in particular is outstanding in the rather demanding role of Genoveva, but Shawn Mathey is a committed Golo and Martin Gantner a fine Siegfried. Cornelia Kallish and Alfred Muff also make a strong impression in the roles of Margaretha and Drago. This is far from bel canto however, and if the singing appears unexceptional in some parts, the acting and commitment to the roles proves just as important. The booklet included with the BD includes a fine thought-provoking essay on the work by Ronny Dietrich, the principal dramatic advisor of the Zurich Opera. It may take some persuading to accept Kušej’s belief that Golo is the central figure of the work and not Genoveva, but it is worth considering that the composer would have probably identified with Golo in his troubled relationship with Clara Schumann’s father.
The quality of the Blu-ray presentation itself is good, and the image is relatively clear. Some minor blue-edges and a little bit of vertical shimmer could have been avoided with a BD50 disc instead of a BD25 for the two-and-a-half-hour opera. It in no way however detracts from the overall quality or sharpness of the image or the fine high quality audio tracks in DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 and PCM 2.0, where there is only a slight dullness in the voices at times due to the boxed-in stage set.