Schumann's only opera, premiered in Leipzig in 1850 (three performances only, on 25, 28 and 30 June) and largely absent from the mainstream repertoire ever since, is a work of intriguing qualities. It has some ravishing music. It has a dense network of subtle leitmotifs and lush, romantic orchestration that marks it out as a work of real ambition. Grimly tragic and, in the person of Genoveva herself noble and heroic throughout, it nevertheless undergoes a final apotheosis into a happy ending. So is it a rescue opera? No, not quite, it is much more problematic than that! What it is, is a one-off (literally) and an opera that has had its passionate adherents and its detractors ever since its creation.
This production by Martin Kusej for the Zurich Opera, filmed in early 2008, is all concept. There is a stage within a stage, backed by a white wall with a dark mirror above a modern porcelain sink, a doorway and not much else. The four main characters Genoveva, her husband Siegfried, her would-be lover Golo and the malevolent sorceress and servant Margaretha inhabit this 'white space' throughout. When Siegfried is away at the wars he is there before us, sitting onstage in an expressionist pose. When Genoveva faints from grief at his parting, she sways elegantly from the hip, takes eight paces stage left, eight paces back to the middle and sways from the hip again. Brilliant stuff or highly irritating, depending on your point of view.
Kusej's concept seems to be that the opera is about all of us, all the time, that we are all parts of the same contradictory human flesh, and that we have no secrets from each other. So in this production everyone sees and hears everything: nobody goes, nobody comes, the work becomes an internalised drama of conflicting emotions. The only times that the Freudian white consulting room is changed is when the blacked-up chorus (literally) emerge from the dark area all around the central stage and deliver their chorales, their carousing songs and their menacing refrains.
Does it work? Not for me, no, because the work itself is not strong enough as music drama – as opera – to sustain this abstract vision of its constituent elements. In an extraordinary assertion in the accompanying programme book, Harnoncourt is quoted as regarding Genoveva as 'perhaps the most significant opera written during the second half of the 19th century'. Come on! As an opera it does not stand the remotest comparison with everything that Verdi wrote from Rigoletto onwards – let alone post-1850 Wagner. It may be that its symphonic structure – foreshadowing Pelleas et Melisande in a number of ways – is particularly interesting for Harnoncourt as a conductor, and the Zurich Orchestra serve him extremely well here, but extravagant claims for the quality of Genoveva as an opera simply do not stack up. George Bernard Shaw did not mince his words when he saw Genoveva, describing the text as 'nakedly silly' from the start of the opera and 'pure bosh' from the end of Act One! However lovely the music, no opera can survive that sort of defect for long. And that is why Genoveva is rarely seen onstage.
Given the constraints of concept opera as practised here, the cast on the whole give creditable performances. I was most impressed with Shawn Mathey in the unrewarding role of Golo. His voice has a Heldentenor ring to it without any of the raw power of that Fach. Instead he produces a string of lovely tone, soft legato singing whenever it is called for and an excellent sense of line. His upper register is open and he produces a full-blooded sound with no sign of strain at the top. As the wimp of a husband Siegfried, Martin Gantner sings with good diction, a clear but light baritone and a decent quality of sound. Nothing thrilling here, but a solid and dependable assumption of the role.
I was less happy with Cornelia Kallisch as Margaretha. Her mezzo is fine when she sings softly in the lower register, but the voice comes under pressure as it rises and she produces a squally tone that I would not like to hear that often. She gives her all to the part (and is onstage almost throughout) but I miss in her assumption of the role the vocal authority and assuredness that the part must have if the DVD is to bear repeated viewings. In the house, for one night, it may have been fine but this is a permanent record and must be assessed accordingly.
That brings me to the title role, sung here by Juliane Banse. She looks lovely, achingly vulnerable, and she moves well: her blank, haunted expression is the characteristic image of this pin-sharp DVD. I have heard her in better voice before, but she does little wrong here – the particular feature of her performance being some absolutely wonderful soft, introspective singing that is a delight to hear (and that must have been even more startling in the theatre). As the wronged wife she bears the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune stoically, her nobility of bearing at times verging on the priggish. But not even she can make this a truly interesting role: and Kusej's direction, making her a mere cipher, robs the part of what might have been a much more passionate account of Genoveva, had she been given freer rein. Banse is a class act, and a soprano whom I would go a long way to hear, but not even she can make this a 'must see' production.
In the smaller roles, Alfred Muff is a dependable old servant, Drago, and the chorus and extras are well drilled. Nikolaus H arnoncourt clearly loves the music – perhaps that is why he is not objective about Genoveva's merits as an opera – and he coaxes a wonderful performance of the score from the Zurich forces. But, much as it grieves me to say it, ultimately all this expenditure of effort is on an opera that does not really work, for some of the reasons (and there are more) that I have given.
Zurich Opera is well served on DVD. I shall keep this Genoveva as a curiosity and as a memento mori of what opera as a genre really needs in order to succeed. The accompanying booklet tells us relatively little in objective terms about the opera but a lot about this particular approach to it. Schumann fans will need no further recommendation, but I can't honestly urge this DVD on the general watcher/listener: it is too idiosyncratic for that.