, March 2009
The Zurich Opera House entrusted musical direction of its 2008 production to Baroque music pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who at age seventy-nine has enjoyed a long relationship with the house. In ArtHaus’s live video recording, he leads a strong cast and draws stirring playing from the pit in a work that might be described as a four-act symphonic poem.
The legend of the chaste, wronged wife Genoveva was well-known in the nineteenth century. Schumann commissioned a libretto based on plays by Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Hebbel; the librettist eventually withdrew, and Schumann completed the text himself. Although there is a discernable plot—when Count Siegfried embarks on a crusade and leaves his young wife, Genoveva, in the care of the trusted knight Golo, Golo’s uncontrollable desire for Genoveva results in crisis—director Martin Kušej prefers to consider the work theater of the absurd, merely a representation of inner states. His psycho-political take on the opera places the action in a brutally sterile, white room (designed by Rolf Glittenberg), resembling an asylum, where the four main characters wander about observing the action, dissolving into laughing fits or singing while standing on top of a sink (which otherwise is dripping blood). The visually disgusting mess does little to illuminate music or libretto, and most of the action, particularly a scene in which chorus members dressed in butcher aprons and face masks hurl rubber fishes at the naked Genoveva, is incomprehensible.
There is plenty to criticize in Schumann’s setting, especially the awkwardly paced recitative—arioso moments that link otherwise successful set-pieces and the static, oratorio-like choral writing. But the arias and duets, where the composer’s great lyric gift is combined with strong and impassioned orchestral writing, are especially beautiful, and the characters of Genoveva and Golo are richly drawn, with ample dramatic opportunities.
In the title role, Juliane Banse shows unwavering commitment, and she manages to execute the director’s ritualistic, robotic moves while singing in the most simple and touching manner. In her physical fragility and wounded eyes she resembles the great singing actress Teresa Stratas, and Banse’s performance has an affecting truth that perfectly serves the music. Tenor Shawn Mathey is a revelation as Golo, combining forceful characterization of this complex, fascinating personage with elegant, firmly grounded vocalism.
Although the director has turned Count Siegfried into a rigid male stereotype in a stated effort to criticize bourgeois life, Martin Gantner uses his robust baritone and a lovely, supple top voice to great effect. As Margaretha, a witch in alliance with Golo to discredit the faithful Genoveva, Cornelia Kallisch sounds suitably harsh, though her ratty wig, filthy face and ridiculous hobo gown (costumes by Heidi Hackl) are straight out of a Halloween store. Alfred Muff is affecting as the martyred Drago, who later returns as a ghost. (His white costume and white face are a tip-off.)