It's not just happenstance that it should take more than 150 years for Genoveva to reach an American stage. While Franz Liszt adored the opera, most other observers, in the composer's time and now, agree that, however beautiful the score — and much of the music is very lovely indeed — the libretto, mostly by Schumann himself, is bad drama even by the standards of Romantic grand opera.
Botstein begs to differ: he says that "Genoveva is to Schumann what Fidelio is to Beethoven" and thinks it should have a similar place in the repertory. To make a case for Genoveva in the opera house is why he programmed it for Bard SummerScape.
Did he succeed? So far three critics have weighed in.
In The Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed did not mince words: "Schumann's Genoveva has terrific music but is so stupid onstage that no one wants it." Nevertheless, he did allow that, "given a bit of a theatrical push by ... Holten, compellingly sung by a handsome young cast and convincingly conducted by Leon Botstein, the work came momentarily to life at Bard, and at times it was a thrill. But no one will probably ever take it seriously."
Writing for Musical America.com, former Opera News editor Patrick J. Smith called Genoveva "a congeries of half-digested vocal lumps ... that rarely cohere and characters who are mostly ciphers when not more than a little ridiculous in their behavior." While suggesting that the cast "was chosen more for looks and acting abilities than for vocal refinements," Smith did allow that Holten's direction "at least kept the show moving along, which allowed for the enjoyment of much of the music" and that "Botstein conducted the American Symphony with energized spirit, as if he believed every note."
Bernard Holland of The New York Times found the endeavor more successful, writing that stage director Holten's "plastic and regenerative surgery [on the opera] smoothes a lot of the lumpiness left by Schumann's unsure sense of dramatic arc" and that Botstein and the orchestra "played with delicacy and taste." As a result, he said, "onlookers can comfortably wrap themselves in urgent, lyrical and, yes, theatrical music while accepting the opera's frailties with a minimum of pain."
Performances of Genoveva continue at Bard College's Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on August 2, 4 and 5; information is available at http://summerscape.bard.edu.
All photos by Cory Weaver.