AT Bard College, some 90 miles up the Hudson from New York, it may be time for a quick prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. Bard SummerScape, an outgrowth of the unabashedly academic Bard Music Festival, has exhumed the perennial flop “Genoveva,” Robert Schumann’s only opera, for what is billed as its American stage premiere.
The one with the most to prove, for Schumann’s sake if not his own, is the Danish director Kasper Bech Holten. In Manhattan recently on a day off from rehearsals at Bard, Mr. Holten, 33, was asked whether the project fazed him.
“No,” he said sunnily. “I wouldn’t be doing it unless I thought it would work. I don’t think this will be an ‘interesting’ experience, for librarians. I think it will be genuinely moving.”
Since 1850, when Schumann conducted the first performances of “Genoveva” in Leipzig, opportunities to evaluate the work have been few. Yet the music has had distinguished defenders. In April 1855, when he led the first revival, in Weimar, Franz Liszt wrote to his fellow virtuoso-composer-conductor, Anton Rubinstein, offering this endorsement: “Of the operas that have been produced over the last 50 years, it is certainly the one I prefer (Wagner excepted — that is understood), in spite of its lack of dramatic vitality.” (But note the reservations.)
The “Genoveva” libretto is Schumann’s own, adapted from now obscure tragedies by Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Hebbel. Setting forth from eighth-century Brabant to fight the Moors, the newlywed Count Siegfried entrusts Genoveva, his wife, to Golo, a warrior and troubadour who is also Siegfried’s dearest kinsman — and the budding Lancelot to her chaste Guinevere. She swoons; Golo steals a kiss; and up pops Margaretha, the banished nurse of Golo’s infancy, to speed his dastardly designs.
“Avant, ignoble bastard!” cries Genoveva, who must know something about his past that we don’t. Mortified, Golo posts an elderly retainer as a spy in her bedroom. Discovered there, this unlikely “lover” is slain before he can talk. Two acts later Genoveva and Siegfried patch up their marriage, but not before he has ordered Golo to kill the supposed adulteress (and Golo has failed to come through).
The splendid overture to “Genoveva” is familiar concert fare: a tapestry of impassioned romantic melody, gorgeously orchestrated (Schumann’s reputation for ineptitude as an orchestrator notwithstanding). Although the four acts that follow remain obscure, at least three stagings have been ventured in the last quarter century, to scathing reviews. Concert performances, somewhat more frequent, have fared better. And complete recordings conducted by Kurt Masur (1976) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1996) establish beyond doubt that Schumann’s inspiration survives the rise of the curtain.
For the chorus there are fine set pieces, including a Lutheran chorale that suffuses sobriety with radiance, a hopeful soldiers’ march of epic breadth and moonlit siren songs. The soloists have glorious episodes too. And the instrumental writing shines throughout. Especially seductive are darting, gleaming passages shot through with the sharp plink of plucked strings, like pixie music of Mendelssohn and Berlioz. This is a vein Schumann associates with anarchy and malice, and especially with Margaretha, who is no mere rogue fairy godmother but an infanticide and a witch.
Leon Botstein — the president of Bard College, the founder of the festival and a conductor and scholar whose credentials run to paragraphs — makes no apology for the risky decision to stage “Genoveva” rather than settle for a concert performance. “We are in the business of doing things other people don’t do,” he said recently from the Bard campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. “Give it a chance.”
Mr. Harnoncourt, until now the opera’s most ardent contemporary defender, said he believed that it could work in the theater. “To me ‘Genoveva’ is the culmination of German Romantic opera,” Mr. Harnoncourt said recently from his home in Austria. “It’s a reinvention of the genre, the goal that ‘The Magic Flute’ and ‘Fidelio’ and ‘Der Freischütz’ point to. But for a hundred years people have been saying, ‘Dumb text, good music.’ Its time still hasn’t come.”
Looking deep into the score, Mr. Harnoncourt finds that the entire thematic structure of the music derives from the opening chorale, and to his ear a clash of keys — D major modulating to E minor — represents Golo’s offstage suicide, an incident not corroborated by the libretto. But wouldn’t these refinements be symphonic virtues rather than theatrical ones?
“Whether in opera or in a play,” Mr. Harnoncourt responded, “it doesn’t work just to ‘tell the story’ of a Romantic piece. ‘Genoveva’ is a drama of the soul, Freud in music. It seesaws between the reality of the plot and the reality of the psyche. When someone finds the golden key that unlocks both realities, ‘Genoveva’ will be a success. There’s no doubt of it.”
Mr. Botstein sounds less certain. He calls “Genoveva” “a problem piece,” peopled with characters who are “cardboard.” The assessment brings to mind the so-called problem plays of Shakespeare: a loose group of pieces fascinating to experts but unloved by the public, marked by tales that — like that of “Genoveva” — are as implausible as they are cruel. “I’m relying on the director and designer to come up with a way to make it work,” Mr. Botstein said. “I don’t see that there’s a compelling argument to say that it can’t.”
Back in Denmark, where he is artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera, Mr. Holten has established himself as something of a wunderkind. In a review of his recent staging of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle (conceived as a four-evening flashback in the mind of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde), The Financial Times called him “appallingly talented,” an accolade apt to dog him until they carve it on his tombstone.
For the Holten “Ring,” the international public will have to rely on the video, promised for next spring. The live production — equal parts sci-fi and film noir, sometimes played out at chamber scale, sometimes monumental — will never be seen again.
“Danish audiences don’t like revivals,” Mr. Holten explained. “And the production was huge, too expensive to store.” An archival video shows action that is highly detailed, intensely physical and often wildly original. Yet within the context, nothing seems arbitrary, and the implications Mr. Holten draws from details of both the text and the music often seem astonishing yet disarmingly right. The stage pictures are striking; the whole is intelligent and hugely entertaining.
From this side of the Atlantic, the flavor seems strongly Brechtian, a characterization Mr. Holten accepts only with an important proviso. “Brecht wanted to create a feeling of alienation,” he said. “I want people to accept the illusion. I’m an old-fashioned director. I look for identification. For me, theater isn’t about intellectualizing. I long to be swept away in a good story.”
However contrived the world of “Genoveva” may be, in Mr. Holten’s mind the characters are very true to life: virtual adolescents, in the cases of Genoveva and Golo, overwhelmed by emotions they cannot fathom, hence prone to exaggerating the stakes, puffing up every flicker of passion into a matter of life and death.
Preliminary sketches by the artist Christian Lemmerz, designing his first opera, show a suite of images calculated to support such impressions: a stage draped in a giant sheet and strewn with giant pillows, suggesting Genoveva’s boudoir; arrangements of magic mirrors for Margaretha’s spells; and nightmare visions of the murdered retainer, tarred and feathered, suspended in air. An intriguing tableau of warriors and courtiers looks appropriated from pompous 19th-century history paintings.
“The solutions come out of listening,” Mr. Holten said. If Mr. Harnoncourt’s golden key is to be found, that is how to look for it.