Genoveva (1850), Robert Schumann's only opera, was composed around the same time that Richard Wagner was working on material for Lohengrin and the Ring of the Niebelungen and it represents an interesting alternative view of how folklore, mythology and legends could be used as an expression of essential Germanic characteristics elevated through the art of the opera or music drama. Although considered a failure, principally because it is somewhat lacking in traditional dramatic content, Schumann's opera, in contrast to Wagner, would appear however to be more deeply rooted in relating these characteristics elevated in mythology back down to the nature of the individual, and that aspect is emphasised very much in Martin Kusej's staging of the rarely performed work for the Zurich Opernhaus in 2008.
Ostensibly, the work is an account of the medieval legend of the martyrdom of St Genevieve, the story promoting the virtues of truth and purity when Genoveva, the Countess of Brabant, is unjustly accused of infidelity, imprisoned and (in the original legend) executed only for her innocence later to be discovered. While one should expect sympathy to lie with the unjustly maligned Genoveva and with the husband Siegfried whose trust has been abused by his servant Golo, a large part of the opera is given over to consideration of the "lower orders", giving depth to Golo, Margaretha and Drago, and it's there that we find, perhaps, more interesting facets of human nature and German character. These characters would appear to have genuine grievances about their treatment and station, even if their means of wresting back some kind of justice can only be achieved through violence and subversion, and the suggestion is perhaps that these figures have a voice that needs to be heard if such actions are to be avoided.
Using a boxed-in set of pure white walls (although they don't stay that way for long), the set design bears little resemblance to the medieval period setting of the work, Kusej choosing to set the opera in Schumann's own period to reflect the social and political climate as he would have known it around 1848. Within this space, the four figures of the central drama are often present, even if they aren't required to be on the stage. The director also makes use of his now trademark shock tactics of minor nudity and plenty of blood also to tremendous effect. Distancing techniques - the characters laughing uncontrollably during the overture, squashing invisible insects and wrestling with a slippery dead fish - are also used to suggest that the libretto shouldn't be taken entirely literally when Siegfried refers to Genoveva as "a woman of true German stock", while she for her part observes that it's "a blessing to be the wife of a hero", and Schumann's score would tend to suggest that this indeed shouldn't be taken entirely at face value.
Whether you buy into the devices and techniques employed by the director, the staging nonetheless has a striking, distinctive look that commands attention where the drama as it is outlined in the libretto ordinarily might not. Fortunately, this production also has Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the helm and a fine performance of the orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich, but the singing is strong from an exceptionally fine cast - Juliane Banse in particular outstanding in the rather demanding role of Genoveva. This is far from bel canto however, and if the singing appears unexceptional in some parts, the acting and commitment to the roles proves just as important. The quality of the Blu-ray presentation itself is also good, and the image is relatively clear, although a BD50 disc instead of a BD25 would have resolved some minor occasional compression issues. It in no way however detracts from the overall quality or sharpness of the image or the fine high quality audio tracks in DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 and PCM 2.0, where there is only a slight dullness in the voices at times due to the boxed-in stage set.