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Ionarts at Large: Good Martha, Bad Opera

available at Amazon
Flotow, Martha, Heger / Bavarian State Orchestra / Rothenberger, Fassbaender, Prey, Gedda et al.
In a German opera guide from the 1960’s, Friedrich von Flotow’s operas are described as “amiably complaisant” – and that’s the guide talking about the two best operas. The more popular one, Martha, or the Market of Richmond, has (barely) clung unto being in the repertoire of a few Germanic opera houses and the occasional revival elsewhere. But the times where this was a repertoire staple (either in German or the oft-performed Italian version) even at the MET, are over. Having finally heard the opera live at the Volksoper in Vienna, I’m tempted to say: “Thankfully”.

I often see this feeble, harmless operetta about love and its tribulations in the English Countryside described as a lost masterpiece, a “rich, tuneful, melodious” work – and great surprise expressed that it should languish now, neglected and forgotten. I wish not to infringe on anyone’s joy, of course. As M.D.Calvocoressi has written: “[T]rying to make people see that their taste and faith is at fault [means] you are proposing, not to add to their stock of artistic pleasure, but to detract from it. The task is as graceless as that of taking a bone from a dog.”

So if you are into music that exudes the profundity of off-day-Rossini and the light charm of early Wagner (think Rienzi), and would not mind randomly added Magic Flute and Fledermaus moments, all executed with the sophistication of a country-fair band or beer hall songs, then Martha is for you! Flotow’s earnest attempt to fuse comic German opera with French opéra comique fails… or maybe it actually succeeds – I suppose it depends on what you think of the genres.

You can pay a smaller price for Martha's charms by listening to it highlights, for they are all contained in two moments: the tenor aria “M’appari tutt’ amor” (probably more famous in this Italian version than the German original “Ach, so fromm, ach so trau”) is available from nearly a hundred tenors on recital discs (or on YouTube, for that matter). The oft recurring hit aria “Die letzte Rose”, meanwhile, is the Irish song of Sir John Stevenson’s to Thomas Moore’s poem “The Last Rose of Summer”, clumsily cut and paste into the rest with key-changes so awkward, you can hear the gears grind. This touch of an Irish song being the key piece of local English flavor is a nice added bit of cultural insensitivity despite (or because) of British occupation of Ireland at the time.

The story is told quickly enough: Lady Harriet Durham is bored at court and needs diversion. This is provided by dressing up as ‘regular folk’ and attending the market where maids offer their services to prospective employers. When she and her confident Nancy are accidentally chosen by Plumkett for service at his estate, they decide to play along. Plumkett’s step brother, “whose heritage is shrouded by mystery”, falls in love with Harriet (masquerading as “Martha, the maid”) who turns him down. The two ladies escape with the help of their hapless cousin Tristan (who fancies Lady Harriet himself).

While Plumkett extols the virtues of porter, a group of hunting ladies rides by, among which Plumkett and Lyonel recognize ‘their maids’. Harriet denies everything – including her true feelings (especially since Lyonel is beneath her in social rank) – and accuses him of madness. About to be arrested, Lyonel gives his ring to Plumkett to give to the Queen when in need or danger – for this is supposed to save him. Turns out Lyonel is of noble heritage, after all, and now Harriet is interested in him again. Now he turns her down. She has the market-scene re-created and offers herself to Lyonel as the maid that he thought her to be when they first met. Naturally Lyonel now realizes that her love is genuine and Plumkett marries Nancy, to round things off.

It’s like someone traipsed through the librettos of Roberto Devereux, and Midsummer Night’s Dream and took random plot elements to cast a new opera out of it. The story and clunky verse (Wilhelm Friedrich a.k.a. Friedrich Wilhelm Riese) does have the advantage of making the music seem sophisticated.

Not that you would have known from the performance at the Volksoper, because most of the cast sang a German that was incomprehensible. Pavel Černoch’s Lyonel (tenor) was valiant effort and a few beautiful moments, but little more – and he sounded like he had a hot potato in his mouth. Ulrike Pichler-Steffen’s Nancy (mezzo) was sadly underpowered, pleasant but week, pretty and nimble. The mostly crass and crudely, usually imbalanced, and sometimes professionally playing orchestra (direction: Elisabeth Attl) was no help in that regard. Mathias Hausmann’s Lord Tristan dropped off at the lower end of his register, but he affably acted out the Lord Tristan shtick as an effeminate, pompous buffoon.

If, after all of this, the performance was still plenty worth having heard it was because of Lars Woldt’s full, round, and reliable bass as Plumkett – and foremost because of Jennifer O’Loughlin’s Lady Harriet Durham. The native Pennsylvanian who has filled in for Diana Damrau’s Susanna at the Salzburg Festival in 2007 (and covered the role for Anna Netrebko in 2006) stood out and apart with a clear voice that, though modestly sized, carries very well. The notes were secure even at the very top and nimbly produced. Not yet the last word in flexibility, there were moments that struck me as a bit steely – but never unpleasantly so. A voice just waiting to be cast to great effect in oratorios, for example.

Her performance was like a touch of silver on the otherwise modest production that annoyed with cheap props (plastic foam on plastic cups in the beer scene – a full moon that was nothing but a white plastic covered lamp through which you could see the neon bulb). The staging itself was well done, and in it’s rustic way just what the opera needed (or deserved). The lighting was unimaginative. Whoever thought of sticking little kids into dog costumes for the hunting scene should be forced to so appear on stage him- or herself.

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