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Villany and regret: Martens, Genoveva’s Margaretha.

A Welcome Curiosity

By B.A. Nilsson

Genoveva

Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, July 30

Robert 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 original script.

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 frolicked accordingly.

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 long time.

Moravian Gothic

Jenufa

Glimmerglass 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 affecting.

Jenufa 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.

Jenufa, 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 undoing.

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 three.

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 opera season.

—B.A. Nilsson

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