Genoveva was Robert Schumann’s only opera. The tragic drama in four acts premiered in Leipzig in June of 1850. The unsuccessful original production received only three performances, and, with the exception of the Overture, the work fell into obscurity.
As with Wagner’s Lohengrin, which was written during the same period of time and premiered in August of 1850, Genoveva is based on a medieval German legend. Genoveva, the wife of Siegfried, Count of Brabante, fights off the obsessive romantic advances of the servant, Golo, while her husband is away at war. Infuriated by Genoveva’s persistent rejection of his advances, Golo stages a murderous trap which gives the appearance of an adulterous affair. When Siegfried learns of Genoveva’s alleged infidelity, he becomes vengeful and orders her execution. Happily, Siegfried realizes Golo’s treachery just in time, and ultimately Genoveva’s life is saved.
Following Wagner’s model, Schumann created a through-composed opera which dispensed with the traditional recitative-aria structure. Additionally, he used leitmotif. (A falling fifth, followed by a rising minor third becomes a recurring signifier of Genoveva’s torment at the hands of Golo). Linda Siegel writes that “Schumann’s preoccupation with the interplay between his characters, incidentally, led him to adopt a system of musical imagery amazingly advanced for the time: the highly complex web of musical symbols in Genoveva cannot be found in Wagner until Tristan.” Perhaps this is not surprising for a composer whose non-operatic works are filled with musical “characters,” such as Florestan and Eusebius, ciphers, and cryptic references.
Schumann composed the Genoveva Overture even before settling on the opera’s scenario. Still, the music follows the opera’s dramatic trajectory. The opening bars are filled with wrenchingly dissonant intervals and weeping gestures. Ominous, desolate, and tempestuous C minor transforms into blazing C major in a coda, which concludes with a triumphant and majestic proclamation.
Genoveva, Act II: “O du, der über alle wacht”
Genoveva’s Act II aria, O du, der über alle wacht (“Oh you, who watches over all”) is an intimate bedtime prayer. It inhabits the dreamy, sensuous world of Schumann’s songs. In the final moments of the aria, a tender duet between the oboe and bassoon anticipates the autumnal magic of Brahms, and blends with the chiming of the castle bell.
This 1997 recording features soprano Ruth Ziesak with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe:
- Schumann: Genoveva Overture, Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amazon
- Schumann: Genoveva, Op. 81, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe Amazon
Featured Image: “Genoveva in the Forest Seclusion” (1841), Ludwig Richter