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Revival of Schumann's Genoveva
at Garsington Opera

By John Sidgwick

GARSINGTON, ENGLAND, 29 June 2000 - Robert Schumann's one and only work for the stage, Genoveva, is the mal-aimé of 19th century operas. It is rarely revived and it has been subjected to constant criticism on all counts since its first performance on 25 June 1850. This has perplexed many scholars and musicians and the obscurity to which the work has been consigned was described by the music historian, Alfred Einstein as "One of the saddest misjudgments in the history of music".

The wife who is falsely accused of adultery whilst her husband is away at the wars has been a familiar figure in legend and drama since antiquity. Schumann's opera on this theme is set in the Middle Ages. The composer himself wrote the libretto, basing his text on the accounts given by Friedrich Hebbel and Ludwig Tieck of the story of the French heroine, Genoveva, whose husband Siegfried goes off to fight against the Moors, leaving his wife in the care of the trusted knight, Golo. The latter cannot resist the temptation to attempt to seduce Genoveva. His advances are vigorously rejected, turning the knight's love into hatred. He swears to bring about Genoveva's downfall, and ensnares the hapless steward, Drago, into a compromising situation (bedroom scene), whereupon the steward is put to death. Siegfried, who has been wounded, learns of his wife's supposed misconduct by letter. In a final confrontation on his return, Genoveva's innocence is established, Golo disappears, presumably to die of remorse, and the married couple are reconciled. Throughout the action, Golo's machinations are sustained by the ambiguous character of Margaretha, who is described as "a sorceress and foster-mother to Golo".

Such are the bare bones of the story. From the outset, Schumann's music illuminates and enhances the action. It is said that he devoted more time and attention to this score than to any other of his compositions. There are no recitatives or arias in the traditional sense of these expressions. Rather, there is a constantly-varied music flow which at every instant is suited to the character singing it or to the situation. Compared with this subtlety, Wagner's identification device of the leitmotiv seems downright crude (pace Wagner-fans). One of the criticisms constantly made about Genoveva is that the piece lacks dramatic action. This is sheer nonsense. There is plenty of drama - melodrama, perhaps, but who's to complain about that in a genre which exploits a fundamental improbability? - and it is skilfully contained within a coherent whole by Schumann's libretto.

Garsington Opera's excellent revival of the opera was premiered on the 150th anniversary to the day of the first performance in Leipzig. Nigel Robson as Golo gave an admirable account of a role which could have been tailor-made for him. Susannah Glanville's Genoveva was strong and moving and the Danish baritone, Johannes Mannov, in the role of Siegfried, in addition to displaying a warm and flexible voice, demonstrated a true feeling for stagecraft. The bass, Mark Beesley, lent pathos to the role of the hapless stool-pigeon, Drago and the soprano, Kathryn Turpin, who sang the part of Margaretha, was a constant and bewitching presence.

The whole performance was sustained by the excellent singing of the chorus and by the performers of the supporting roles (it is worth mentioning that a cast which did not contain a single German-born singer were almost faultless in their pronunciation, a tribute to Garsington's praiseworthy policy of calling on the services of language coaches for the entire rehearsal period). The conductor, Elgar Howarth, got his players to give an enchanting account of an exacting score. Ashley Martin-Davis's décor was stark, urgent and almost cruel, but utterly unfussy, providing the sort of space needed by the director, Aidan Lang, to keep the action in constant and convincing movement.

Once again, the high-standards set by Garsington Opera have been sustained. The great question must surely be, will this revival lead to Genoveva being introduced into the realm of standard repertoire? The main hindrance to this is perhaps the fact that the work is absolutely sui generis, rendering its general acceptance problematic. Furthermore, much of its charm would be lost on a large stage. The irony therefore is that Schumann, who was anxious to distance himself from earlier and even contemporary operatic traditions, came up with a work whose natural setting is the small and intimate house of the early eighteenth century. A pity for us today. So thank goodness for Garsington!


The operas at Garsington are performed within the remarkable gardens of Garsington Manor, a few miles from the university town of Oxford, England. The stage is on the wide stone terrace at the east end of the Jacobean manor house which provides an excellent accoustic for orchestra and voices. The audience, just short of five hundred, is seated in a comfortable, heated auditorium and a canopy covers the stage and orchestra.

Now in its twelfth season, Garsington Opera is presenting Haydn's Il mondo della luna based on the successful original production; Le Nozze di Figaro which is ideally suited to Garsington, and Schumann's only opera Genoveva, which will be the first UK performance since 1893 (last two performances: 4th and 6th July).


John Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.

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