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Schumann At The Source: 'Genoveva' At The Gewandhaus

Robert Schumann often seemed to live his creative life in spurts, spending a year or so concentrating on one particular kind of music and then abruptly moving on to something else.

The year 1841 is a good example. Sometimes called Schumann's "symphonic year," it included his first symphony, a symphony in D minor that later became his Symphony No. 4, as well as his popular Overture, Scherzo and Finale and the beginnings of his piano concerto.

Then Schumann switched gears, and in 1842 turned to chamber music, completing a piano quartet, three string quartets and a piano quintet. After that, in 1843, it was choral music that held the composer's attention, and he composed his large-scale oratorio, Paradise and the Peri.

Still, there were some types of music that occupied Schumann's mind, if not his efforts, for much of his career, and one of them might come as a surprise: opera.

Schumann thought about writing about writing an opera when he was barely 20 years old, pondering a setting of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Later on, he tinkered with operas about two different sets of star-crossed lovers -- Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan and Isolde. Schumann also considered operas based on the legend of Till Eulenspiegel, Byron's The Corsair and Goethe's Faust.

Ultimately all of that came to nothing, and Schumann completed just one opera, the stormy drama Genoveva. It's based on the legend of Genevieve of Brabant -- a young wife whose loyalty and faith are put to the test when she's accused of infidelity by a rejected suitor.

In the opera, Schumann ups the ante by giving that suitor, the knight Golo, a level of passion that fully lives up to the literary and musical romanticism that Schumann embraced in much of his work. Golo is almost disturbingly single-minded, first in his brazen attempts to seduce Genoveva, then in his later determination to destroy her.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Genoveva in a performance celebrating the 200th anniversary of Schumann's birth (he was born June 8, 1810). It comes to us from the historic Gewandhaus in Leipzig, the same city where the opera was premiered in 1850. Soprano Anne Schwanewilms sings the title role, with tenor Shawn Mathey as Golo.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.