Friedrich von Flotow: Martha (1847)

Romantisch-Komische Oper im fier Akten. Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes.

flotow-martha-act-i-lionel-and-plunkett-the-victrola-book-of-the-opera-m89j03

The most famous and perhaps only well known Flotow opera, this thing has one of the most hilariously bizarre plots in all opera that doesn’t attempt to suspend reality with the likes of a giant serpent. Based on a ballet for which Flotow composed the first act (much of the music for the first act of the opera, which is by far the longest of the four, is taken from the contribution Flotow gave to the original ballet) the opera may seem very imbalanced as the first act is almost half the total length of the opera (the last two acts combined are actually shorter than the first act). As with Alessandro Stradella, Martha is really a French opera in German (or Italian) as Flotow himself was a French-trained musician.

SETTING: England, reign of Queen Anne, specifically 1710. There are six soloist characters: the protagonist is Lady Harriet Durham (soprano) who with her lady-in-waiting Nancy (mezzo-soprano) hire themselves out as farm servants under pseudonyms (Martha and Julia respectively) as a joke because their lives at court are just so boring. They are hired by Plunkett (bass) and his sexy tenor man-of-mystery foster-brother Lyonel after her cousin Sir Tristan (bass, and whose amorous attentions she is totally disinterested in) is unable to rescue them from a year-long contract for Plunkett. The girls do escape, after being forced to learn how to make brooms among other things, run into and insult Lyonel during a royal fox hunt in the forest during one of his Heathcliff moments and eventually are reconciled (thanks to a ring and the revelation of the true ancestral origins of Lyonel) with the two farmers romantically during a second go at the Richmond Fair. The sixth character is a bass Sheriff who judges the girls at the fair.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (48 minutes)

0: The overture *** is the most well known orchestral composition by Flotow and is a wonder composite of French and German methods and themes from later in the opera including the melody of a prayer sung by Lionel in act three which is repeated at the end.  To some extent it does seem a great deal more grave than the subject matter of the opera would indicate.

Scene 1: The Boudoir of Lady Harriet.

9: Darf mir nächtig The opera opens with a happy chorus of ladies-in-waiting to the lady-in-waiting as Lady Harriet bemoans how bore she is with everything to Nancy **.

12: Von den edlen Kavalieren Nancy tries to distract her with men, but Harriet is also bored with the many noblemen who seek her hand in a tuneful duet **.

17: Schöne Lady und Cousine Sir Tristan, the cousin and slimy suitor of Lady Harriet, arrives and gets sucked into the web of confusion the two women are weaving in an exciting trio ***. A static march come on in the background as Harriet gets the idea to sell herself as a servant at the Richmond Fair (the girls in the chorus are going to the fair to sell their services, which are of a perfectly innocent, domestic nature). The vocal gymnastics for Harriet, which go up to multiple high Ds and give the whole piece a Fledermaus effect, gives it the extra star.

Scene 2: The Richmond Fair.

25: Madchen, brav und treu Big choral extravaganza opens the fair ** as the girls come on for the auction and the townies (female and male) stand in wait.

31: Ja, seit früher We are introduced to Plunkett and Lyonel in an okay duet which is more interesting plot-wise than musically (there is a flighty violin bit worth looking out for), until Lyonel bursts into a grand arioso * which is followed by Plunkett and then a reprise by Lyonel. This sets up their relationship well enough, but it is the weakest item of the act.

35: Der Markt beginnt The act finale part one **: The Sheriff comes on to judge the three groupings of girls who are sell themselves out (this sounds far more wrong that it actually is). They end up verbally attacking each other.

42: Sieh nur The number is broken by a (partially a cappella) quartet *** Lady Harriet pops in with Nancy and Sir Tristan, but the girls end up separated from him, meanwhile Plunkett and Lyonel become smitten with the girls and end up hiring them out: as they explain to Sir Tristan, for a year!

47: Kein Entriennen The act finale part two ***: Harriet and Nancy try to protest, but the girls get dragged off by the two farmer boys.

ACT 2: The home of Plunkett. (29 minutes)

1: Nur näher blöde Madchen An almost liturgical-sounding quartet ** which eventually grows more jovially.

4, 11: Was soll ich dazu sagen?/Mein ich doch so treu A more lovely quartet *** in a more romantic hue as Plunkett and Lyonel try to make the girls spin wool, and they laugh at them. Since Plunkett is a lot less warm than Lyonel, Lady Harriet starts to think that maybe he is not what he appears: in fact, the boy has a back-story **: he was a foundling left at the door of the Plunkett home, not born to them. The only thing left with him is a ring, which Lyonel still keeps but has no idea as to its origins.

14: Letzte Rose The Last Rose of Summer *** a famous tune, not originated by the opera, in fact it is much older, as Lyonel and Martha/Harriett realize their love for each other.

18: Sie lacht zu meinen Leiden A passionate duet for Lyonel and Martha/Harriett ** followed by a more sedate number for Plunkett and Nancy/Julia, when suddenly the clock-strikes midnight of all things (already?).

21: Schlafe wohl! Lyonel leads in a slumbering good-night ensemble ***.

25: Fort von hinden Sir Tristan shows up to rescue the girls from their beds in a minor reprise of their act one number **. Plunkett and Lyonel discover that they have been cheated by the girls and wake up the men of the village to try to find the girls.

ACT 3: A forest. (23 minutes)

0: Lass mich euch Fragen Plunkett embarks on a drinking song **.

5: Jägerin A royal hunting party comes on and Nancy sings a hunting song **. Plunkett recognizes Nancy and upbraids her to a most Rossinian string element.

8: Ach, so Fromm Lyonel bursts into a reprise of The Last Rose of Summer **, but it is merely a prelude to his great outpouring ***: perhaps the finest tenor aria in a German comic opera, as he begs Harriett, who he still thinks is Martha, to love him. Their confrontation is equally exciting.

15: Tristan, Tristan! A furious ensemble ensues ***, after which Lady Harriet is able to convince everyone that Lyonel is insane.

18: Magd der Himmel The act finale *** Lyonel opens with a brilliant tune heard initially in the overture. The Queen comes closer and Lady Harriet departs with her retinue as Lyonel is arrested, but he gives Plunkett the ring to give to Queen Anne.

ACT 4: (25 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the palace.

0: The entr’acte is based on The Last Rose of Summer which will saturate the act **.

2: Den Teuren zu versöhnen Lady Harriett expresses her excitement over how she can bag Lyonel now that he is the long-lost son of a wrongly banished nobleman ***.

7: Der Lenz ist gekommen What appears to be yet another reprise of Last Rose turns into a furious (but dreamy) confrontational duet between Lady Harriett and Lyonel ***. She expresses such remorse for what she has done and reveals to him his true origins: he is the Count of Derby. Lyonel refuses to accept her apology or that his estates might be returned to him. He storms out and Lady Harriett is left to think up a plan to get him back with Nancy and Plunkett.

14: Ja, was nun? A mild (if bewitching) duet between Nancy and Plunkett (with traces of Beethoven?) ends the scene *.

Scene 2: Same as Act 1 Scene 2.

19: Hier die Buden The sparkling choral finale is a potpourri of tunes from earlier in the opera *** as Lady Harriett and Nancy come back dressed as girls for hire: we get a repeat of the girls chorus from act one as Plunkett and Lyonel show up and, of course, he sees Martha again.  They are reconciled brilliant, the opera ending with yet another reprise and it is of course The Last Rose of Summer. 

COMMENTS:

Martha, along with Alessandro Stradella, begs one to question: was Flotow a brilliant composer whose other operas need to be rediscovered or where these two just his best work, and the rest are otherwise laying in well deserved obscurity? To this day, only the two operas have been recorded and it appears as if none of the other twenty-eight operas Flotow wrote have been performed since the 19th century. Is this possibly one of the great omissions of opera?

The way The Last Rose of Summer is incorporated into the score is somewhat legendary as it was one of the primary reasons the opera was performed as much as it was. The role of Nancy requires what I can only think of as a brilliant contralto or mezzo-soprano as it goes only up to a high-A but all the way down to a low-F below middle-C. Lady Harriett is a complex coloratura soprano showcase, Lyonel a beautifully flattering tenor part which Caruso effectively used in the early 1900s. The opera itself (or rather its finale) is even in the 1930 film Romance for which Greta Garbo was given her second Academy Award nomination. The one problem is that the resolution is so classist: Lady Harriett only asks forgiveness from Lyonel because she knows that they are social equals, if he were just a farmer he would still be in prison! So does she love him because he is the Count of Derby or because he is Lyonel? After all she didn’t know he was a count when she met him. So this does sour the plot a little, a little, but the music is just brilliant and entertaining from start to finish. An alpha, maybe plus.

6 thoughts on “Friedrich von Flotow: Martha (1847)

  1. If you thought Meyerbeer has been unfairly neglected (which he has), then Flotow must take the prize for most unfairly neglected composer (maybe?). His two currently performed works Martha and Alessandro Stradella are both excellent, and I CANNOT believe that his other 28 (?) operas are all duds. There is so much out there just never performed, why is that?
    Thanks for the great review!

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    1. Capitalism mostly. What is performed is what is popular enough to sell tickets to. That is why everyone on earth has heard La Traviata and Cav-Pag. The fact that Flotow had only two semi-known operas and Verdi has more than a dozen also means brand recognition and why say Alzira gets more performances than Martha. Martha was at one time one of the most performed operas, so its neglect has more to do with decline in popularity rather than totally being ignored.

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  2. I’m sure you’re right. Still, wouldn’t you imagine there might be some amateur group, like an “NPO” opera company, who would enjoy staging a modern-day world premiere of a rare Flotow opera, even in concert version?
    Do you have any plans for an Ambroise Thomas review? Or have I missed one somewhere?

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    1. I have Hamlet waiting in the wings, finished it a around six months ago and just have not released it yet. Have been working on Mignon, have act one finished, got stuck at that point.

      There may be a scholar somewhere who is a specialist in von Flotow who would like a revival of one of his other 28 operas, but it is unlikely. The reason Alessandro Stradella was revived probably had more to do with its previous fame in the 1840s than with a sudden new interest in Flotow. The operas that get modern revivals tend to be the ones that were once popular and fell into neglect for one reason or another. And then, they usually only see one or two productions.

      Ultimately, the operas we hear, even the rare ones that sometimes show up here, are curated by the powers that be. For example, even though I have over 300 reviews, I barely stratch the surface of operatic history with its probably >40,000 odd titles, of which perhaps 3000 to 4000 have actually ever been electronically recorded.

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    1. Again, La Statue was actually a success at its premiere in 1861, and only disappeared in the early 20th century. Operas like this usually had something going for them to have been originally successful, so they are safer as revival choices. La Statue has not been given a live performance since 1903 or studio recording, so it is unlikely that I will review given the current situation (lack of a full recording). If it were, I possibly would review it since I have reviewed Reyer before.

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