Schumann At The Source: 'Genoveva' At The Gewandhaus

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Genevieve of Brabant

Schumann's only opera, Genoveva, is based on the legend of Genevieve of Brabant, depicted in this anonymous 18th-century painting. wikimedia commons hide caption

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the single

In the second act, after Genoveva (soprano Anne Schwanewilms) is discovered with Drago and falsely accused of infidelity, she sings the moving prayer "O du, der über alle wacht" -- "Oh you, who watch over all."

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B Side

The key scene that begins Genoveva's troubles starts with an intense duet between Genoveva and Golo (tenor Shawn Mathey) -- who are supposedly singing of relief at the news that Siegfried is safe. But Golo has another agenda, and when he presses his love on Genoveva, against her wishes, she curses him as a "vile bastard." Golo responds with a curse of his own, and vows to destroy her.

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Robert Schumann often seemed to live his creative life in spurts, spending a year or so concentrating on one particular kind of music and then abruptly moving on to something else.

The year 1841 is a good example. Sometimes called Schumann's "symphonic year," it included his first symphony, a symphony in D minor that later became his Symphony No. 4, as well as his popular Overture, Scherzo and Finale and the beginnings of his piano concerto.

Then Schumann switched gears, and in 1842 turned to chamber music, completing a piano quartet, three string quartets and a piano quintet. After that, in 1843, it was choral music that held the composer's attention, and he composed his large-scale oratorio, Paradise and the Peri.

Still, there were some types of music that occupied Schumann's mind, if not his efforts, for much of his career, and one of them might come as a surprise: opera.

Schumann thought about writing about writing an opera when he was barely 20 years old, pondering a setting of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Later on, he tinkered with operas about two different sets of star-crossed lovers — Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan and Isolde. Schumann also considered operas based on the legend of Till Eulenspiegel, Byron's The Corsair and Goethe's Faust.

Ultimately all of that came to nothing, and Schumann completed just one opera, the stormy drama Genoveva. It's based on the legend of Genevieve of Brabant — a young wife whose loyalty and faith are put to the test when she's accused of infidelity by a rejected suitor.

In the opera, Schumann ups the ante by giving that suitor, the knight Golo, a level of passion that fully lives up to the literary and musical romanticism that Schumann embraced in much of his work. Golo is almost disturbingly single-minded, first in his brazen attempts to seduce Genoveva, then in his later determination to destroy her.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Genoveva in a performance celebrating the 200th anniversary of Schumann's birth (he was born June 8, 1810). It comes to us from the historic Gewandhaus in Leipzig, the same city where the opera was premiered in 1850. Soprano Anne Schwanewilms sings the title role, with tenor Shawn Mathey as Golo.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Genoveva'

Ludwig Richter's painting, "Genoveva Alone in the Forest", from 1841. i

Ludwig Richter's painting, Genoveva Alone in the Forest, from 1841. wikimedia commons hide caption

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Ludwig Richter's painting, "Genoveva Alone in the Forest", from 1841.

Ludwig Richter's painting, Genoveva Alone in the Forest, from 1841.

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Anne Schwanewilms .............. Genoveva

Shawn Mathey ………………. Golo

Morten Frank Larsen .....….. Siegfried

Birgit Remmert ………...... Margaretha

Markus Marquardt ............. Drago/Hidulfus

Jae-Hyong Kim ……......… Balthasar

Gun-Wook Lee …..........……. Casar

MDR Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Jun Märkl, conductor

The opera is set in 8th-century Brabant, a territory now in the nations of Belgium and the Netherlands. Genoveva is the wife of Count Siegfried and as ACT ONE begins, he's departing for war against the Moors as part of a crusading army that's being rallied by Bishop Hidulfus. To keep his wife safe, Siegfried leaves Genoveva under the protection of the young knight Golo — not realizing that Golo is in love with her.

With Genoveva exhausted after Siegfried's emotional departure, Golo stokes his passion by kissing her as she sleeps. He's urged on by the sorceress Margaretha, who has a grudge against Siegfried and is planning revenge.

As ACT TWO begins, Golo tells Genoveva that Siegfried has been victorious in the war. Genoveva is ecstatic, thinking her husband will soon be home. Hoping to cash in on her enthusiasm, Golo takes her in his arms. But she rejects him harshly, calling him a "vile bastard," and sends him away.

Hurt and angry, Golo curses Genoveva and vows to destroy her. He hires the servant Drago to help, asking him to hide in Genoveva's bedroom that night. Drago agrees — but gets more than he bargained for. Later, along with some other servants, Margaretha bursts into Genoveva's room, finding Drago there, as well. Then, according to plan, she quickly summons Golo. He kills Drago, then denounces Genoveva for her supposed infidelity and has her hauled off to the dungeon.

In ACT THREE, Count Siegfried has stopped on his way home from battle, to recover from a wound, when Golo arrives with the news about Genoveva.

To make things seem even worse, Margaretha produces what she describes as a magic mirror, and uses it to trick Siegfried with what she claims are images of Genoveva's betrayal. Believing it all, Siegfried decides that Genoveva must die, and Golo leaves to see that it's done.

ACT FOUR takes place in a forest, where the authorities have brought Genoveva to be executed. Golo tries to give her one last chance, saying that he'll save her if she runs away with him. But she refuses — rejecting him again. Golo is despondent, but finds that he really has no interest in seeing Genoveva die, after all. He wanders off alone, and is never seen again.

In the meantime, Margaretha has seen the light. Or, rather, she's seen the ghost of the murdered Drago, who convinces her to tell Siegfried the truth. Siegfried, now knowing that Genoveva is innocent, arrives at home just in time to save her. As the two are reunited, the bishop gives the couple his blessing as the opera ends.



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