Lately , I've been seeing some rarely performed but interesting operas on Netflix . They have a wide variety of classical and opera DVDs available , so I've been taking advantage of this . Among these are a rare production of the only opera by Robert Schumann - "Genoveva " ( hard g as in gum ) . It was filmed at the Zurich opera several years ago .
Schumann (1810 - 1856 ) is best known for his beloved piano concerto , his four symphonies , his many art songs , works for solo piano etc, but he did write one opera , Genoveva , which is the story of a brave medieval German Count and his beautiful young wife Countess Genoveva . Count Siegfried must go off to war to fight the Moors from Spain who are invading Europe , and he leaves Genoveva in the care of his trusted servant Golo in his castle , who is secretly in love with Genoveva but who dares not reveal this .
Golo declares his love for her and makes a brazen pass at her, but she rejects him . He falsely accuses her of adultery with another one of the Count's servants , who is killed by the angry residents of the castle . Genoveva is accused , and sentenced to die . But Count Siegfried returns just before she is executed , the plot is revealed and everything ends happily .
Not a bad subject for an opera , and Schumann wrote some beautiful and stirring music for it . But for some reason , the opera has had only sporadic revivals since the mid 19th century . Many critics and musicologists have dismissed it as hopelessly ineffective dramatically despite the fine music . It was not recorded until the late 1970s , when the distinguished German conductor Kurt Masur led it with the renowned Gewandhaus orchestra of Leipzig in the former East Germany , of which he was then chief conductor .
Another distinguished conductor , Nikolaus Harnoncourt , best known for his performances with period instrument orchestras ,made a more recent Digital recording with the Chamber orchestra of Europe , and he leads the Zurcih production .
But the production , directed by one Martin Kusej ( KOO - shay ) is so perverse and grotesquely inappropriate it would have given poor old Robert heart failure if he could see it . Not to mention the unit set , which serves for all the different scenes in the opera . The costumes are of Schumann's time , which is the least of the production's quirks . This is unfortunately typical of European opera productions today , which vie with each other in trying to be as trendily perverse as possible .
The one set consists of an all white room with a modern sink ! The characters frequrently jump on top of it for no apparent reason despite the fact that the action takes place over 1,000 years ago ,long befiore modern plumbing . Fake blood frequently appears out of the blue on the white wall , and many of the characters have what looks like soot on their faces for no apparent reason . Fake blood also comes out of the sink at times .
Characters who are not in certain scenes of the opera stand there in front of the others , even though they are supposed ot be far away at the time . Does this even make any sense ? Perhaps the most ludicrous thing in this wacky production is when an invisible chorus is supposed ot be singing behind the scene , where the sorceress Margaretha , who is involved in the plot against the hapless Genoveva , performs magic for some reason too complicated to explain here .
The phantom chorus is right there in front of the audience , and is dressed up as surgeons ! with scrubs and surgeon's masks covering their faces . The chorus takes a bunch of dead fish ! and swings them around , later throwing them in a pile on the floor . Genoveva is nude , with her back to the audience . Sheesh !!! What got into the mind of the director ?
And this is by no means the most ridiculous and bizarre production of an opera which has appeared at European opera houses in our time . For nearly 40 years , such productions have be de rigeur in Europe . You almost never see a production of an opera set in the time of the original story or with costumes of the period . The opera may take place in the middle ages , but the cast and chorus are usually in modern clothes as well as the sets .
Some productions at the Metropolitan opera and other American opera houses have updated the action and costumes to the present day , but the directors rarely go as far as those in European houses in dreaming up bizarre arbitrary gimmicks .
But at least I got a chance to see this rarely performed operatic masterpiece .
The great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was born in the Ukraine to Russian parents 123 years ago today . His exuberant , witty, melodious and colorful music has been beloved all over the world for nearly a century . Prokofiev showed great talent as both a pianist and composer from childhood , and he studied at the St. Petersburg conservatory with such notable Russian composers as Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov from boyhood to early adulthood . He then went on to make quite a name for himself as both a pianist and composer , appearing all over Russia , Europe and America as a pianist ,playing both his own music and that of others ,spending much of his life in Europe and the U.S.A. until he returned to the U.S.S. R . in 1936 , often having to deal with the random displeasure of Joseph Stalin , a confirmed music lover but one who made life extremely difficult for leading Russian composers with his random displeasure with their music .
According to the dreaded Georgian-born tyrant , any music which displeased him was unfit for the Soviet public . Prokofiev's younger contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975 ) also suffered greatly under Stalin . One of the weirdest coindcidences in the history of music is that Prokofiev died on the very same day as Stalin in 1953 !
Prokofiev composed masterpieces in virtually every musical genre ; works for piano ; sonatas , miscellaneous piano pieces , five piano concertos , two for violin , two for cello , seven symphonies and other orchestral works , operas, ballets , oratorios , chamber music , etc .
His music has enormous expressive range ; it can be witty, sarcastic , playful , heroic, tragic , fantastical , weird , radiantly lyrical , you name it . But it is almost always very Russian in feeling . Prokofiev's music is very rich in memorable themes , his harmonies are always pungent and his orchestration is colofrful and inventive .
Among his most famous works are his first symphony , from around 1917 , the so-called "classical " symphony , which is an attempt to imitate the style of Mozart & Haydn while using 20th century harmony , the third of his five piano concertos , the fifth symphony , the music to the famous Sergei Eisenstein film "Alexnder Nevsky " adapted for concert performance , the familiar "Peter and the Wolf " , the music to the ballet "Romeo & Juliet " , the two concertos for violin etc .
The various operas of Prokofiev , which have only been widely performed in recent years , are among the most fascinating of the 20th century . They include the monumental and very long "War & Peace " ,based on the great Tolstoy novel , the zany farce "The Love For Oranges ", based on an 18th century Italian comedy , a sort of operatic Monty Python sketch , and the weird and profoundly disturbing "The Fiery Angel ", a nightmarish story of obsession ,black magic and demonic possession in 16th century Germany .
Other ballet scores include " Cinderella " , based on the familiar fairy tale , and "The Stone Flower ", based on old Russian legends . Prokofiev also wrote sweeping and powerful music for the Eisenstein fim "Ivan The Terrible ," and this was adapted for concert use after the composer's death .
The "Lt. Kizhe " suite for orchestra comes from the music to the Russian film of the same name about a 19th century Tsar who reads a military report inaccurartely and comes to believe in the existence of a non-existent Lt. Kizhe . However , his militry staff are too frightenend to tell the mighty Tsar that he has made a mistake and resort to making up bogus reports of his supposed military expolits . When the Tsar asks to meet the officer , he is told of his death in battle and a mock funeral is held ! This film gave Prokofiev a chance to display his musical wit , which he did in many of his works .
Prokofiev's music has been widely recorded and given some of the greatest pianists , violinists , cellists and conductors of the 20t century to show their mettle . Among them pianists Vladmimir Horowitz , Sviatoslav Richter , violinists Jascha Heifetz , David Oistrakh and Itzhak Perlman , cellist and conductor Mstiislav Rostropovich , who was a close friend of the composer , and conductors Yevgeny Mravinsky, Eugene Ormandy, Gennady Rozhdestvensky , and Leopold Stokowski , to name only a handful .
These recordings and those of many other distinguished intperpreters of Prokofiev are easily available on CD , as well as DVDs of the ballets and operas .
The music of Prokofiev is both modern and accessible , and there is so much of it to enjoy .