Schumann’s Genoveva is a rarity. It premiered in 1850 and quickly slipped into obscurity. Recently it has been championed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt who has gone so far as to call it “the most significant opera of the second half of the 19th century”; a slightly eye popping claim. So what’s it about? On the face of it it’s a pretty typical german opera of the period, set during the wars against the Moors in Spain. Siegfried (Graf in the libretto but mysteriously translated as Duke in the disk subtitles) is recently married but must lead his men off to the war leaving behind his young, beautiful, pious and virtuous bride Genoveva. He leaves Golo; a knight but a bastard so apparently not OK for active service, to guard his lands and wife. Golo has the hots for Genoveva but when she rejects his advances he concocts, with the aid of a witch, a plot to make it appear that she’s having an affair with an elderly retainer. She’s locked up by the servants and word is sent to Siegfried; returned from Spain but recovering from wounds in Strasbourg, of what has transpired. He gives Golo his sword and ring and tells Golo to kill Genoveva. Instead gold tries to get her to run away with him but she refuses and he disappears. The servants too are happy enough to humiliate Genoveva but pretty slow about killing her. This gives time for Siegfried to arrive, having learnt of his wife’s innocence, and save the day. All sing a hymn of praise to God. Along the way there’s a magic mirror, a ghost, a magic potion and a whole lot of cloying sentimentality and piousness.
Not, one might think, the sort of thing to excite Harnoncourt but he sees the piece quite differently. Based on both the music and a deep structural analysis of the piece, he believes that, rather than virtuous Siegfried and Genoveva being traduced by the slimy Golo that Golo is the true hero of the piece. Gold is the complete man, free and an artist. In fact, Schumann himself. He struggles to realize this full self against the forces of reaction (Metternich and co.) symbolized by the psychologically repressed married couple. I’m not sure what the Witch symbolizes. It’s an interesting idea but can it be staged successfully?
Well, for the 2008 Zürich production Harnoncourt collaborated with Martin Kušej who appeared to share his views and chose to set the piece in the 1840s. He also sets in a white room set in the middle of a black stage. There’s a door, a mirror and a washbasin. All four principal characters are on stage the whole time. Costumes are black and grey. The only colour in the piece is red and you can guess what that’s all about. Most of the time the chorus sings from off stage but on the odd occasion they enter the room they are very odd indeed; hooded with darkened faces. In the scene where they denounce Genoveva they smear dirt everywhere then throw fish at the girl. In the final scene they are equally grubby and sing a dirge like version of the final hymn while unwrapping multiple statues of the Virgin Mary. All this while a stony faced Siegfried and a terrified Genoveva have sung of their undying love for each other without ever making eye contact. And, as they say, that’s not all. Each act is preceded by a sort of silent mime sequence. For example at the beginning of Act 4, a much dishevelled Genoveva appears to be playing leapfrog with the wash basin. No doubt the director has an explanation for all this but we don’t have a glossary and it comes across as just plain weird and rather incoherent. It’s also pretty creepy. Genoveva gets groped a lot, usually while praying.
The acting, singing and playing are all of a vey high quality and very much in support of the Konzept. Juliane Banse makes a most sympathetic Genoveva singing with gorgeously sweet tone and looking achingly sad. She’s also very beautiful even when she’s been knocked around rather a lot. Shawn Mathey is manic and overwrought as Golo but doesn’t let that affect his singing. He does get a lot of the best music so maybe Harnoncourt has a point. Martin Gantner plays Siegfried singing in a stylish and measured way and acting as if he has a stick up his ass. Cornelia Kallisch is a wide eyed and truly weird Margaretha; the witch. There are some excellent cameos; especially the ever reliable Alfred Muff as the retainer Drago who is the one framed for adultery and who later reappears as a ghost. Harnoncourt’s tempi, one feels, are highly personal in support of his overall ideas. The final scene, for example, is incredibly slow. The Zürich orchestra and chorus are as good as ever.
Felix Breisach directs for video and does a pretty good job. He gets the overall look and feel across and if, occasionally, his close up tracking shots have one wondering what the other three are up to, they are quite creepy and atmospheric. The picture on Blu-ray is true HD and is excellent. I watched this recording from the disk Nikolaus Harnoncourt Opera Collection, which also includes recordings of Fidelio and Der Freischütz, but only has a stereo sound track. The “standalone” Blu-ray release includes DTS-HD-MA surround sound and there’s also a DVD version with Dolby 5.1 sound. That said, the stereo track is pretty good. The booklet contains a detailed track listing and synopsis (essential given the staging) and an essay which helps explain what’s supposed to be going on. Subtitle options are German, French, English and Spanish.