and regret: Martens, Genoveva’s Margaretha.
Theater, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, July 30
Schumann’s only opera flopped at its 1850 premiere and, despite
finding a champion in Franz Liszt, has met with few revivals.
It limped into the U.S. only recently, for a concert performance
in Boston last year; it’s getting what’s billed as its first
North American staging at Bard College, revealing once and
for all what a mess this piece is.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a great afternoon at the opera.
In conductor Leon Botstein and director Kasper Bech Holton,
the work found great champions. Botstein was true to the sweep
of the piece, which occupies its own distinctive place in
the realm both of opera and of Schumann’s time; Holton, recognizing
that much of the piece would seem plain silly, pushed it to
the edge with taste and restraint enough to serve the work
while managing a few winks at the audience.
Like Wagner, his contemporary, Schumann was drawn to stories
of German legend, and mined some of the same sources in fashioning
the tale of Genoveva, wife of Siegfried, Count of Brabante.
As Siegfried rides off to fight in the inevitable Crusade,
he leaves his servant, Golo, to look after his wife.
What a hapless character! Thwarted in love, Golo turns vicious,
but even his viciousness fails. He’s onstage even before the
overture begins (prompting the fear that the overture would
be staged, a disease infecting too many directors these days),
where he sits, back to us, until the curtain rises on a splendid
stage picture of Siegfried and his fellows. (As this scene
betokened, lighting and composition throughout the opera were
exemplary.) Symmetrically, he’s there when the final curtain
falls, after a thoughtful Grand Guignol gesture not in the
Of course, a faithful retainer with designs on his master’s
wife is a plum role, and tenor Philippe Castagner, while somewhat
low-key in his characterization, was vocally very convincing.
He makes his amorous pitch in Genoveva’s bedchamber in act
two, in a setting of puffy white duvets covering the stage.
There we see Genoveva, staid and supplicant while bidding
her husband farewell, behave like a petulant schoolgirl. It
was an effect I’m suspecting Schumann didn’t have in mind,
but soprano Ylva Kihlberg found her inner Jean Harlow and
She laughs off Golo’s entreaties; he connives, with the inevitable
evil foster mother (Margaretha, enthusiastically sung by Michaela
Martens), Genoveva’s undoing, and so persuades the clownish
servant Drago to hide in the bed. Drago’s discovery featured
a brilliant piece of stage design, as the other servants set
to stabbing the duvets, revealing great clouds of black feathers.
Although the third act is supposed to take place at “a modest
room at an inn,” it became instead a hall of mirrors, setting
us up for Siegfried’s vision, conjured by Margaretha, of his
betrayal. It was right out of Orson Welles’s The Lady from
Shanghai, a fun-house effect that was anything but fun.
As Siegfried, Johannes Mannov seemed to be all rectitude at
first; wounded in battle, drugged by Margaretha, he found
comic opportunities that rarely seemed to go against character.
Although Schumann shrewdly wrote this opera without big arias,
thus maintaining a more effective through-line, both Mannov
and Martens had significant moments in this act. Mannov made
a believable transition from wounded, self-doubting knight
to enraged husband; Martens confesses almost offhandedly to
what seems to be a random act of infanticide, yet there’s
regret in her confession, a regret that gives her credibility.
Schumann obviously wished to breathe life into his characters,
but he hobbled himself with a libretto that’s downright silly
at times. That’s where Holton’s concept of the piece paid
off. Walking the tightrope between melodrama and ridiculousness,
he kept the opera very entertaining.
Kudos to Botstein and company for reviving Genoveva,
which shows a side of Schumann worth seeing. Without the high
concept and production values, however, the piece remains
a curiosity, and my curiosity is now satisfied for a good
Opera, Cooperstown, July 29
In terms of plot, Jenufa seems so melodramatic at times
that you wouldn’t be surprised to see the landlord burst in
and demand the rent. But each time the opera threatens to
go over the edge, Leos Janacék’s music pulls us back into
the complicated depths of human emotion and what’s happening
on stage seems both plausible and inevitable. And extremely
was the composer’s first opera and remains his most popular—though
not as popular as Puccini’s contemporaneous Madame Butterfly,
because Janacék wasn’t writing for the aria-loving public.
In fact, Janacék based the music of his vocal works on the
sounds of the word and phrases he set. And those words were
in Czech, which don’t sing as mellifluously as Italian.
When it comes to exploring the shifting emotions of the human
soul, however, Janacék is uncompromising. His music is instantly
recognizable, with distinctive orchestral textures that seem
to fully come alive when it’s the music of musical theater.
based on a then-popular play, is a tale of tragedy and betrayal
with a big hunk of religious guilt spurring the events. As
the curtain rises, Jenufa is pregnant and unhappy, singing
of the latter while telegraphing the former by clutching her
midriff. Her lover, Steva, one of the most hapless characters
ever to grace the stage, wants little to do with her, which
infuriates his half-brother, Laca, who worships the woman.
Jenufa’s stepmother, Kostelnicka, won’t allow the marriage
anyway unless Steva stays sober for a year. It’s part of the
older woman’s strict moral code, an ethic that will be her
Although the opera was set in a Moravian mill town (Janacék
grew up in Brno), sets and costumes designer Isabella Bywater
showed us something more along the lines of American Gothic,
with the first act’s millhouse replaced by the façade of a
Craftsman-style home. It’s an interesting conceit, but it
ignores the mill effects in the orchestration and takes us
another step away from the complicated family relationships
that inform the story.
Similarly, the setting for acts two and three, which is a
room in Kostelnicka’s house, was a cutaway of exaggerated
proportion on a fierce rake. Gone were the religious artifacts
that are supposed to cover the walls (and help define the
woman’s character), and the downstage wall proved a staging
impediment when the chorus enters towards the end of the piece.
Director Jonathan Miller, a frequent Glimmerglass visitor,
seemed to have too many bodies on his hands at times, leading
to such problems as a very awkward exit for the Maid in act
But such criticism is insignificant in the face of the score,
which is a glorious exploration of multi-layered emotion,
giving depth to what otherwise threatened to be a lot of handwringing.
After all, the second act, set on a freezing winter day, is
fueled by infanticide, very much the stuff of 19th-century
penny dreadfuls. Janacék, however, brought a 20th-century
musical sensibility to the project, and fashioned a libretto
that ultimately veers from tragic cliché and finishes with
a sense (however bleak) of hope and redemption.
The character of Laca begins as a lout. Skillfully sung by
Roger Honeywell, he matures during the course of the piece
and becomes its most likeable character. Honeywell’s voice,
while strong, occasionally was lost in the fortissimo moments,
but he was never unconvincing.
Elizabeth Byrne, usually seen in German repertory, was stunning
as Kostelnicka. Literally and figuratively, it’s a killer
role, and in the second act especially she more than satisfied
the vocal and dramatic demands of the piece.
In the title role, Maria Kanyova is given a character of somewhat
less depth, but she, too, has her moments—especially her act
two prayer, a sweet and chilling moment—that fully support
her decisions at the end of the piece.
Janacék is famous for crafting music to fit the sounds of
words and phrases; underneath that, he weaves orchestral subtexts
that bring an uneasy edge to even the most innocent-sounding
phrase. Stewart Robertson led the Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra
in a superb realization of this score, which, while it may
not leave tunes stuck in your head, will profoundly affect
you. And that alone makes it a highlight of this summer’s