For most listeners, Schumann’s only opera is still a relatively unknown quantity – and Nikolaus Harnoncourt holds the critics responsible. “They had all approached the work with a preconceived idea of what an opera must be like,” he writes in the context of Teldec’s handsome booklet. “If it doesn’t live up to one’s expectations, the work itself is condemned out of hand.” Listening to Genoveva tends to back up Harnoncourt’s claim, though I would hazard a guess that it is the concert- or recital-hall, and not the opera-house foyer, that harbours the majority of potential converts.
Genoveva (1847-9) rather resembles a multi-movement tone-poem for voices and orchestra, with side-glances at the Second Symphony (1845-6), anticipations of the Cello Concerto (1850) and Manfred (1852) and vivid recollections of Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht (1832 – surely an influence). The libretto (by Schumann himself, after Tieck and Hebbel) deals with secret passion and suspected adultery, while the music mirrors emotional turmoil with great subtlety, and sometimes with astonishing imagination. Copious foretastes are provided in the familiar overture (Schumann’s use of leitmotiv is more abstract – less wedded to specific characters – than Wagner’s), and thereafter, discoveries abound. Home in, for example, on the jagged counter-motif that shudders as Genoveva’s husband Siegfried entreats Golo (his own alter ego) to guard his wife while he is away at war (the musical reference marks tragedy afoot – disc 1, track 5, at 1'58''); or the off-stage forces representing drunken servants at 2'22'' into track 9; or the almost Expressionist writing at 4'00'' into track 10 where Golo responds – with seething hatred – to Genoveva’s vengeance.
Some set pieces are tailed by touching postludes (one thinks of countless Schumann Lieder), though in the case of Genoveva’s glorious “O Du, der uber alle wacht” (is there a lovelier Schumann song than this?), the closing envoi (2'43'' into track 12) incorporates a distantly chiming castle bell.You might also home into track 2 on disc 2, at 3'37'', where Golo brings Siegfried news of Genoveva’s supposed adultery (follow the music for a minute or two), music that is both pained and equivocal, or the urgent prelude that anticipates the terrible dream of Golo’s nurse Margaretha (opening of track 3), or the ethereal off-stage voices as Margaretha conjures images from a magic mirror (track 4). The entreaties of Drago’s ghost aren’t too far removed from Siegmund’s “Nothung!” in Act 1 of Die Walkure (same track, from say, 6'10''), and Genoveva’s singing from “a desolate, rocky place” (track 5, first minute or so), sounds to me fairly prophetic of Isolde (who was as yet unborn, so to speak). Harnoncourt suspects that Genoveva was a “counterblast” to Wagner, and although Wagner apparently thought the opera “bizarre”, I have a vague suspicion of sneaking regard, even a smidgen of influence.
Harnoncourt’s recording is contemporaneous with his first performances of the work, given in Graz during the summer of 1996. Teldec’s balancing is mostly judicious and the musical direction suggestive of burning conviction, especially in the Overture and those many passages where sparse texture and mild dissonances predominate. Turning to the worthy though relatively conventional Gerd Albrecht (in Orfeo’s mellow, widely spaced, live 1992 recording) only serves to underline the leaner, more inflected and more urgently voiced profile of Harnoncourt’s interpretation. As to the two sets of singers, most preferences rest with this new line-up – Ruth Ziesak is a very believable Genoveva – though I retain a slight preference for Keith Lewis’s more ardent characterization of Golo. Stage effects – mostly concerned with relative perspectives – are well handled and the sum effect is of a top-drawer Schumann set within an unexpected structural context. Opera buffs might complain at a lack of action, but lovers of Schumann will celebrate a work that is at once intimate, thought-provoking and gloriously melodious. A sure-fire first choice.