Satisfying the needs of the opera-starved public over the summer doldrums, Boston Midsummer Opera (BMO) is staging Martha, a charming and musically gorgeous romcom of surprising depth, at BU’s Tsai Performance Center, July 29, 31, and August 2. The opera contains two of the more famous arias in the repertoire, sparkling ensembles, not to mention the luminously tender “Goodnight” Quartet.
The Wikipedia entry informs us that Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha or The Market at Richmond is in four acts and set to a German libretto by Riese, based on a story by Vernoy de Saint-Georges. Flotow had composed the first act of a ballet, performed by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1844; the time available for further composition was short, so the second and third acts were assigned to Burgmüller and Deldevez. The opera Martha is an adaptation of this ballet; despite its German and Austrian origins, it is “French in character and elegance”.
Along with the Boston Midsummer Ensemble, the English-singing cast features acclaimed soprano Joanna Mongiardo (Lady Harriet/Martha); Spanish-American tenor Eric Barry (Lionel); contralto Stephanie Kacoyanis (Nancy); bass Jason Budd (Plunkett); and bass-baritone David Cushing (Sir Tristan). Noted director James O’Leary stages the production, and nationally acclaimed conductor Susan Davenny Wyner will lead the BMO orchestra. The design team includes Stephen Dobay, (sets), John Cuff, (lighting), and Elisabetta Polito (costumes).
BMInt interviewed director James O’Leary and tenor Eric Barry:
FLE: Martha has a least a couple of the most famous arias we forgot we knew, or knew but not whence. “Ach so fromm,” “The Last rose of Summer”. It sounds weird to hear Thomas Moore’s words in German, so there’s one more reason to enjoy the opera in English, as you’re providing. But why does “Ach so fromm” sound so familiar—do we know it from something else?
James O’Leary: “Ach! so fromm” has been a staple of tenor concert repertoire since the 19th century, but as far as I know it has not been used in anything else that could explain its enduring familiarity (theme songs, movies, and so forth).
One possible reason is that was included as part of the standard Schirmer anthology of tenor arias as far back as the 1904 (reissued 1954). This collection has since been updated, but “Ach! so fromm” still appears in it (usually in Italian: “M’appari”). Generations of tenors have cut their teeth on this anthology, so it seems a natural choice for singers when they prepare concerts and recitals. And indeed, many of the great tenors have included this piece on their compilations: Caruso, Pavarotti, Gedda, Kaufmann, and so on.
But there is another reason that “Ach! so fromm” is so famous—put bluntly, it’s damn good. Starting in F major, it quickly veers to D-flat major as the lyrics become more intense, a chromatic key relation that composers such as Schubert, Chopin, and Schumann had used to great effect for highly emotional or “otherworldly” moments. When the piece returns to the opening key, D-flat major slams up against a G7 chord, the applied dominant in the key of F. In other words, the return to F major is a rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment that still surprises me every time I hear it. I find it extremely effective.
Critics in the past (following Schumannian logic) have considered such effects to be merely blunt. But I’ve never understood why writing good effects is a detriment. It’s simply a different aesthetic operating under a different set of rules—Flotow is Flotow, not Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart. Writing a show like Martha indeed takes a great deal of skill: deploying sudden changes of mode, sudden changes of key, and sudden jumps to soaring high notes, Flotow expertly gauges the energy of his audience and exploits it. He uses such effects in order to wring the maximum comedy and the pathos out of each scene. This quality also makes Martha a joy to perform. Perhaps one way to put it would be that it’s not just that the musicians play the music, but rather that the music plays the musicians—and plays them with great skill, using economical means to achieve maximum drama. It may not have that introspective or transcendental quality of other opera composers, but it is certainly well-crafted, highly skilled work that is a joy to listen to, and that lends itself perfectly to the stage.
Please remind us what else in the opera is familiar.
You’ve already noted “Ach! so fromm” and “The Last Rose of Summer.” Two more may be familiar. “The Spinning Wheel” quartet is a wonderful little recording from 1911 (in English!), and the famous part starts [here] at 2’25”. It is a far cry from “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, isn’t it? A version in German from 1944 is here.
“The Goodnight Quartet” occurs in the opera shortly after “Spinning Wheel”, in Act II, when the lovers bid each other goodnight. [Link here]
Is this ‘refindable’ familiarity one of the reasons for the revival?
Initially we were drawn by the arias, and were curious to know the context in which these fantastic songs appeared. But our interest in the opera goes deeper. When we looked at the score we noticed how it drew upon a wide range of traditions: stretches of the buffa writing of French comic opera (if Martha had been written 15 years later we may call parts of it operetta), hints of bel canto, French Grand Opera (with its tableaux and large choral scenes), and a strong sense of German Romantic opera (complete with folksongs). Flotow himself called it a “Romantic comic” opera, and for my part, before I encountered Martha, I would have considered broad comedy and German Romantic opera more or less opposed.
As we started to work though Martha, however, we realized that it was no mere curiosity. It was composed not only with a strong musical sense but with a strong theatrical sense. Martha was written by a man with a knack for drama, with an astoundingly broad range of theatrical experience, and with an uncanny ability to make all these seemingly disparate elements cohere. In my opinion, there’s really nothing else like it. Because the opera has such an unusual character, we wanted to see how we might bring it to life onstage. It became our task to see how we could draw upon all of these traditions without stifling any of them.
Some pretty important singers have performed the complete opera and continue to record the arias. If it gives so much pleasure, why is it so rarely produced?
Martha is something of an unusual hybrid. While on the one hand the opera certainly revels in lush bel canto influences, it does not give into the sheer vocal extravagances of Rossini. And while the plot has the moments of zaniness that one might expect from opera buffa or even operetta, it also contains elements of folkish simplicity and Romantic earnestness.
Although the opera may seem all but absent from major houses today, this piece has not been out of the repertoire for all that long. Before the poorly received 1961 Metropolitan Opera production, it was often programmed in many opera houses around the country (including the New York City Opera’s first season, in 1944, and another, earlier Met production, in 1928). In the 19th century it was one of the most popular pieces on the stage in the United States and in Europe. And even if the largest opera houses no longer perform it, it is still performed around the fringes: by colleges, smaller houses, and there was even a revival of it at the New York City Opera in 1990.
So while I cannot say for certain why it is no longer produced, I think it is not an opera that fits neatly into any particular category that we typically see programmed in this country today. Depending how one approaches the score, it would be easy to expect Martha to be something it is not: seeing the hints of bel canto, one could fault it for being poor Rossini; noticing swathes of German Romantic opera writing, one could be disappointed that it is not Weber. In short, one could potentially see it as a watered-down version of many genres. But I think this would be a misunderstanding of what Flotow set out to do, and such expectations would make one blind his remarkable achievement in blending so many idioms. (And if contemporary reception can be any indicator, he was certainly successful.) Our goal has been to plumb Flotow’s musical language in all its variegated styles and figure out how best to mount it onstage in a way that allows each particular component to shine vividly.
Is the plot important? Mistaken identity, flouted love—the usual complications. Please give us the shortest possible summary.
The plot, I think, is important—and would have especially been important to audiences in the 1840s. Sure, it’s simple enough: two rich women disguise themselves as peasants, and when they are mistaken for maidservants, hilarity ensues, romance flares between classes, and in the end all is resolved.
On the surface, then, it looks typical. But there is a twist to the typical Cinderella story: when the main characters are given a chance to return to court and restore their fortunes, they refuse, and instead decide to give up their courtly life in favor of a simple, bucolic life. It’s Cinderella in reverse. Rather than become a princess, Cinderella here moves into a farmhouse with her prince.
This may seem typical to us today, but one can see why this plot would have appealed audiences of the 1840s—then full swing in the headiest years of the radical Romantic movement. In the generation following Rousseau, Schleiermacher, Schlegel, Schilling, and the rest, this would certainly have resonated as an endorsement of Romantic values. And it is no accident that the emotional center of this opera is not a religious song (as in Meyerbeer, for example), but a folksong. The plot endorses a bucolic, close-to-nature lifestyle, with values that privilege heart over head and joy over reason. The folksong (with only a strummed, harp accompaniment) represents the most potent distillation of Romantic values.
The Tsai Theater has a rather shallow stage and not much in the way of wings. What will the production look like? Will interiors and exteriors be well-delineated?
Our set designer has come up with a structure that is amazingly fluid: it can suggest both interiors and exteriors with lighting, furniture and props; it can feel both intimate and grand. His design is not only beautiful but clever, and it has been a joy to work with it.
Lighting and costuming have helped with the suspension of disbelief in some of BMO’s previous summer refreshers. Can you describe what we can look forward to and give some sketches?
Lisa Polito is our expert costume designer, and she has built an entire wardrobe for our production from scratch. The costumes are of the period (English Baroque), and she has made them as colorful and full of texture as possible. Lisa is amazing because she is so sensitive to character. The subtle differences between Nancy and Harriet, and even the subtle differences between Harriet when playing at peasant and when she gives up her aristocratic pretensions are wonderfully evocative.
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Is this your first Lyonel?
Eric Barry: Yes, this is certainly my first time to sing the entire role, although I’ve sung the famous aria in both German and Italian hundreds of times. For some reason Martha isn’t produced very often in the United States, and I’m not sure it’s even been programmed professionally in the US during my lifetime.
Are you channeling Kaufmann or Caruso?
That’s a fun question to think about. Between those two choices I’d have to say Caruso. Kaufmann is a glorious musician, and I’ve heard him live many times, but I think for this music his sound is too dark for my ear. Also, I hear the tessitura being a little high (not that he couldn’t do it with his incredible technique!) I bring an Italianate approach to my singing that’s closer to Caruso. Outside of those two choices, if I had to name a tenor to emulate in this role it’d be Wunderlich [here] and Kaufmann here].
How deeply do you have to dig to get into this flimsy(?) character?
Lyonel isn’t a profoundly deep character. He is a genuine, hardworking man who is trying to live up to his father’s dying wish to live a simple life. The hardships he was dealt during his childhood certainly add layers to his character in Act III, when he realizes that his true identity is the Earl of Derby. Coming into wealth and higher class during this period was especially fortunate, but I don’t think it changes his views or moral standing. The most difficult character decision he has is whether to marry Lady Harriett after the way she’s treated him before knowing his rank, and we’ve spent a lot of time on that scene to make sure the audience knows that his character runs much deeper than his pockets ever could.
Is this kind of comedy hard to bring off without camp?
Campy humor requires a sense of artificiality: it’s the over-the-top aspect that makes camp what it is, and I find that our actors strive to keep artificial movement and emotions out of this production. Operetta is made up of very stylized movement and dances, and comedy often requires exaggeration in order to be funny, but we actually agreed as a cast of principals that we wanted our characters and their stories to be as real and authentic as possible, to make them relatable to our patrons, not just entertaining for two hours. We’ve been careful to make sure that the humor feels organic, that it springs from the situation and the music at hand.
Will there be any unintentionally funny moments?
There is always a chance for unintentional funny moments in live theater! While the show is certainly comedic, there is a greater love story that takes focus and it comes through very clearly with our cast. Our chorus is fantastic and full of character, so I’m sure there will be some creative expressions and little Easter eggs of humor to discover if the patrons watch closely enough.
Do you love working with your Harriet? With the rest of the singers and the conductor?
Meeting new colleagues and reuniting with old friends is one of the great benefits of being a performer. Lady Harriett is being sung by Joanna Mongiardo, and though we’ve never met in the past, it’s been very easy to share the stage with her and “fall in love.” She has a beautiful voice brimmed with musicality. Stephanie Kacoyanis plays Nancy and brings a vivacious, sexy flavor to the role that makes her character terribly entertaining, a perfect match for Jason Budd’s Plunkett, who needs a proper lady to whip him into shape every now and again. David Cushing brings a rich range of vocal dexterity and well thought out physical mannerisms to his character, Sir Tristan. He’s perfect for the role. The chorus is glorious, and it’s always nice to see familiar faces when revisiting an opera company. Susan Davenny Wyner is a pleasure to work with. She comes prepared with a lot of musical ideas and suggestions, which is a huge help when setting a new role solidly on its feet.
See related review here.
Wednesday July 29 and Friday July 31 at 7:30pm and Sunday August 2 at 3pm at the Tsai Performance Center
Boston University, 685 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.
A pre-opera talk with O’Leary and the writer Richard Dyer will take place one hour before performance time.
Tickets, $40-$60 for all performances, are available online here.
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