Genoveva November 17th

How good is Robert Schumann’s Genoveva?  It depends who you ask.  Conventional musicological wisdom from a generation ago consigns Schumann to the same kind of niche as other virtuosi such as Chopin and Liszt.  Their solo piano works are brilliant but once an orchestra comes into the picture the musicologist smiles indulgently, while shaking his head.

And of course that viewpoint is as out of date as the assumption that the musicologist must be a “he”.

If you’ve had the good fortune to hear historically informed performances of Schumann’s symphonic repertoire (for example, the recordings conducted by Norrington or Harnoncourt), you’ll recognize that up until quite recently, we didn’t really know what Schumann’s orchestral music sounded like.  Calling Schumann a bad orchestrator on the basis of recordings made before 1985 is a lot like dismissing Mussorgsky on the basis of the Rimsky-Korsakov version of Boris Godunov: because the version we encountered had been tampered with, and the original had been distorted in the process.

In case you can’t tell, I like Genoveva.  I can’t claim to have seen the opera either, but i saw enough to know it’s worth producing, after having had the pleasure of a concert performance by Bill Shookhoff’s Opera By Request.  Given that this is Schumann’s only attempt I feel certain he would have improved his understanding of the form had he written more than the one opera. It wasn’t just a coincidence that Mussorgsky came to mind.  Like Boris, Genoveva is an opera that deserves to be more influential than it is, a cul de sac rather than a new pathway, and a marvellous solution to the composer’s challenge of putting words to music.

Having put my heart on my sleeve in this declaration of love, I will now explain why Genoveva likely will never be more than an offbeat choice of repertoire.

First and foremost, the tale is a curious juxtaposition of oddball characters and straight-laced conservatism.  The two most interesting characters—Margaretha and Golo—are not the leads.  Sadly, neither of the principals –Genoveva and her husband Siegfried—is very interesting dramatically, notwithstanding the lovely music they’re asked to sing.  It doesn’t help, either, that the hero is a baritone, and the quirky tenor part is very difficult to sing.  Perhaps once we have a performance tradition, and singers have had a chance to experiment, the work will seem more coherent than it does at this point.

I couldn’t forget Schumann’s madness as a gruesome subtext for me throughout.  Golo—that tenor part I spoke of—felt to me like an alter-ego of the composer, which is to say, a character whose grasp of reality at times feels as shaky as that of the composer, an obsessive and dissembling mess of a man.  The opera’s plot is fundamentally about illusion and reality, the kind of metaphysical tale that must have been attractive to Schumann precisely because of his own struggle.

One can see several resonances to other romantic operas.

Wagner’s Lohengrin:

  • innocent woman, needing rescue,
  • her plight as a Christian allegory
  • everyone thinks she is guilty
  • Pagan witch character (cf Ortrud)
  • Purportedly loyal man actually treacherous (Telramund)
  • National crusade of war as backdrop
  • Big choruses

Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust

  • Big choruses, including drunken common folk, pastoral music, chorus as part of magic effect
  • Magical moments, conjured by an evil character
  • Final triumphal scene
  • Tenor role that is almost unsingably difficult


  • Innocent wife framed (Desdemona)
  • Treacherous friend who seems to be loyal (Iago)

Die Meistersinger

…and given the number of times I’ve mentioned Wagner in this list, I can’t help but wonder whether Wagner dismissively scorned the opera precisely because he was influenced by it and didn’t want anyone to notice.

Schumann’s musical treatment is so far ahead of its time as to be one of a kind.  It doesn’t have arias or full-stop numbers that segment the work.  Instead it is through composed, seeming more Wagnerian (in the sense that Wagner– or that second-generation Wagnerian, Claude Debussy– avoids full stops and virtuosity for its own sake) than anything in Wagner.  That is why I am reminded of Boris Godunov, another one-of-a-kind opera that moves quickly without numbers and seems to be instantaneous in its handling of dramatic situations.

The performance is a bit difficult to assess given that this is the first time I’ve encountered the work, and the first time most of us have encountered the music.  It’s much easier to undertake a role that one has heard since one’s childhood, than one that is unknown.  In other words, the achievement of this cast is much greater than one might think at first glance.

I have been an admirer of Bill Shookhoff for a long time.  Shookhoff plays with phenomenal precision, a choice that is especially remarkable considering how difficult Schumann’s piano accompaniment is, opting to support singers rather than going for big effects.  The performance Nov 17th at U of T at Scarborough’s Leigha Lee Browne Theatre was a case of good news bad news. While the theatre did offer us surtitles and the Scarborough College concert choir as chorus, the dry acoustic was more suitable for spoken word presentations than opera, sucking any colour from the voices.

The four principals all helped make the case for Schumann.  Mila Ionkova was a sympathetic Genoveva, while baritone Doug McNaughton as her husband Siegfried possessed a heroic sound.  Lenard Whiting managed to sing all the high notes of Golo, the most virtuosic of any of the roles.  Karen Bojti’s Margaretha was the most accomplished of any of the principals; admittedly her kind of role always steals the show.  Bojti was most able to transcend the limitations of the concert format.

Opera by Request returns with the following future projects:

  • Il Trovatore November 26 & 28
  • Tales of Hoffmann January 29th
  • Pelléas et Mélisande February 5th
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