Schumann’s Genoveva at Bard; Mozart Politicized by Sellars

The heat of summer seems to bring out obscure oddities plucked from the overstocked greenhouse of Western classical music. For some time, no festival has been more avid in pursuit of the unfamiliar than Bard SummerScape, whose guiding spirit is Bard College president Leon Botstein, a conductor and scholar who loves footnotes as much as musical notes. Close on that event’s heels came the once-stodgy Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, which has lately acquired a fresh profile by programming its namesake’s least-known pieces along with the chestnuts.

At Bard, the summer’s principal curio has been Schumann’s only completed opera, Genoveva, a work that’s had an occasional European revival but no lasting success since its less than triumphant premiere in 1850. For reasons that would require years of psychoanalysis to unravel, Schumann’s mercurial music, by turns magisterial and intimate, stirs me more than perhaps that of any other composer. I was deeply moved by Genoveva, as performed at Bard’s space-age, Frank Gehry–designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, and I would jump at the chance to see it again.

Like Wagner, Schumann was a man with a mission, determined to put German Romantic opera on the noble footing occupied by the concert music of Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Unlike the more dramatically inclined Wagner, however, he viewed opera as a fusion of poetry and music. The plot of Genoveva details the horrific persecution of a stalwart wife wrongly accused of adultery with the conniving friend of her absent husband, who’s off fighting for the Christians in eighth-century Europe. But Schumann’s impassioned handling of it in compressed, swift-flowing scenes, set to tumultuous music that can turn on a dime from rhapsodic to eerie, elevates the piece way beyond pulp fiction.

John Daverio, in his definitive biography of the composer, Robert Schumann: Herald of “A New Poetic Age” (1997), calls Genoveva a “literary opera,” one that “begins as a Trauerspiel, a play of mourning, and ends as a hagiographic drama of redemption.” In this, the work calls to mind another composer’s singular operatic achievement—Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande, which is similarly gripping as a large-scale musical poem about cruelty redeemed.

Mr. Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra with knowing efficiency. Kasper Bech Holten, the artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera, devised a visually stunning production that matched the score for opulent austerity. In the title role, the alluring Swedish soprano Yiva Kihlberg led a strong international cast that included the Danish baritone Johannes Mannov as Siegfried, and the American mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens as the sorceress Margaretha. The affectingly light-voiced French tenor Philippe Castagner was scarily sympathetic in the opera’s most complex role—that of Golo, the treacherous best friend. Theirs was a Genoveva that should not be allowed to disappear.

MOSTLY MOZART’S MAJOR DISCOVERY has been the rare staging of an untitled operatic fragment known by the name of its heroine, Zaide. In 1779, Mozart was just 23 when he began an opera that he hoped would win him employment in Vienna. The plot he chose, a fashionable story of Oriental captivity, introduced a theme—the abuse of power—that he would later address with such astonishing complexity in his mature masterpieces The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute.

Scholars have speculated that Mozart left Zaide unfinished (it lacks an overture, a libretto and a finale) because it was, in essence, a self-portrait of the composer as a very young man. The hero is named Gomatz, a partial anagram of “Mozart”; the subject of enslavement hints at Mozart’s impatience to escape musical servitude in his hometown of Salzburg; and the absence of a third act revealing the fate of the captive lovers suggests that Mozart realized that his future as an opera composer was still up for grabs.

I can imagine a witty staging of Zaide that takes place inside the composer’s head and makes a virtue of the work’s patchy charms, leaving its occasionally breathtaking arias and ensembles to speak for themselves—and for the Mozart to come. But this show has been directed by Peter Sellars, an old hand at plucking daisies with a bulldozer.

During the 30 years since he put Handel’s Orlando in a trailer camp and Mozart’s Figaro in the Trump Tower, Mr. Sellars has gone from being an engaging imp to a moralizing scold. This most frail of Mozart’s vessels must now bear the weight not just of Turkish slavery during the Enlightenment, but of slavery in whatever form it exists in today’s world.

To this end, George Tsypin’s shallow, multi-tiered set, which filled the stage at the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center, presented us with a punishing, neon-lit sweatshop in which a chorus of slaves slept under their sewing machines. Take that, globalization! Mr. Sellars used bombastic music from another early Mozart fragment, his theater music for Thamos, King of Egypt, to create an overture and connective tissue, during which the performers were asked to pantomime brutality, terror, lustfulness, pity and other manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man in poses that belonged on posters, not an opera stage. A dedicated group of non-white (read: politically cast) principals had clearly worked diligently (slavishly?) to master the semaphoric gestures of Mr. Sellars’ didactic naturalism.

For all that, I greatly enjoyed the verve with which Mostly Mozart’s music director, Louis Langrée, led the estimable period-instrument ensemble Concerto Köln through the young genius’ felicitous patchwork of music. And I admired the uniformly excellent singers, especially the true-voiced Zaide of the young Korean-American soprano Hyunah Yu and the rich bass-baritone of Alfred Walker as Allazim, a slave converted to Islam.

But Mr. Sellars no longer seems to know when to leave well enough alone. Whereas he once relied on the music and theatrical images to carry the evening, he now likes to pepper the proceedings with words—most of them his words—lest we miss the point. In a recent interview, he likened Mozart in his political prescience not only to such contemporaries as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin but also to Martin Luther King Jr. In a program note, he writes that with Zaide, Mozart “chose to challenge the world with blazing sincerity in music of deep political conviction.” Hmmm, so that’s why he didn’t finish it. In the lobby, I encountered a table of pamphlets, one of which bore the message “Slavery Still Exists: And It Could Be in Your Backyard.”

No doubt—and no doubt Mr. Sellars’ heart is heavy with the world’s evils. But so, unfortunately, is his hand.