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Flotow’s Finest Inked for BMO’s 10th Season


flotowSatisfying 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.

Martha's gown by Elisabetta Polito
Martha’s gown by Elisabetta Polito

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.

Model of Stephen Dobay's set.
Model of Stephen Dobay’s set.

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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Director James O’Leary specializes in popular music and opera, and currently focuses his research on Broadway musicals of the 1940s. He investigates the ways in which composers have strategically and selfconsciously projected aesthetic hierarchies (high art versus popular, highbrow versus lowbrow) to intervene in political debates during World War II and the early Cold War. He has presented his work at a number of conferences including annual meetings of the American Musicological Societyat the Society for American Music, and at the Sorbonne. In addition to his written work, O’Leary has lectured for the Metropolitan Opera and has worked as a pianist, music director, and arranger for the Yale School of Drama, the American Repertory Theater Oberon Stage, and the Williamstown Theater Festival. At Oberlin, O’Leary teaches music history surveys in 19th-century European music and American music, as well as more specialized courses on topics including popular music; Fin-de-Siècle music in Germany, France, and Austria; music philosophy; and organology.
Conductor Susan Davenny Wyner has received international acclaim for her conducting. The Library of Congress featured her in its 2003 “Women Who Dare” Engagement Calendar, and the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour and WGBH Television have presented special documentary features on her life and work. Her conducting credits include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, Danish Odense Symphony, Boston Lyric Opera, concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and recordings for Albany and Bridge Records. André Previn, Lynn Harrell, Claude Frank, Peter Serkin, and Emanuel Ax, have been among her guest soloists. Prior to her conducting, she had an international career as a lyric soprano, singing with the Metropolitan Opera and major conductors and orchestras in the US and abroad.
Versatile soprano Joanna Mongiardo (Lady Harriet/Martha) is recognized for her effortless coloratura and spellbinding charisma on stage, and is in high demand for both operatic and symphonic repertoire internationally. The 2014-2015 season included a role debut as Rossini’s Semiramide with Opéra Nice Côte d’Azur, her Dallas Opera debut as Brigitta in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, and a return to the Back Bay Chorale for Mozart’s Mass in C minor. In recent seasons, Joanna has been engaged for more than 30 performances of Blonde in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, including productions at Grande Théâtre de Genève, Opéra Nice Côte d’Azur, and Deutsche Oper am Rhein. A gifted comedienne, her Rosalina in Il Re with Teatro Grattacielo was named “Best Individual Performance of 2011” by Das Opernwelt Jahrbuch. Joanna was a member of the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf, where she performed lead roles including Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Oscar in Un ballo in maschera, Nannetta in Falstaff, and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. . Ms Mongiardo last appeared with BMO in 2007 in The Tales of Offenbach.
Spanish-American tenor Eric Barry returns to BMO in the role of Lionel. His recent performances of Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress at Wolf Trap Opera brought him remarkable critical and public acclaim.

Mr. Barry’s 2014-15 season included two Mozart’s masterpieces: Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni with Opera Memphis and the title role in La clemenza di Tito with Opera in the Heights, Houston. He also sang Alfredo in Shreveport Opera’s production of La Traviata and debuted with BMO in the role of Jenik in The Bartered Bride. On the concert stage, Mr. Barry sang a gala performance of opera arias with the Johnstown Symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Handel’s Messiah with the Winston Salem Symphony, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the New Choral Society, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Indianapolis Symphony.
Last season, Mr. Barry returned to Amarillo Opera as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as made his debut with Shreveport Opera as Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore. He also debuted as Rodolfo in La bohème with Opera Pittsburgh and North Carolina Opera. On the orchestra stage, Mr. Barry made debuts with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra singing Verdi’s Requiem, and at Avery Fisher Hall with the National Chorale in performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
Contralto Stephanie Kacoyanis (Nancy) has received critical acclaim for her “velvet voice,” “vocal agility,” and “spiritually rich performances” (Boston Musical Intelligencer) and is gaining recognition as an accomplished interpreter of opera, oratorio, and musical theater repertoire. Recent opera and musical theater roles include Meg Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Boston Midsummer Opera), Saint Cecilia in Four Saints in Three Acts (Boston Modern Orchestra Project), Aunt March in Little Women (Opera del West), Lucy Steele in the world premiere of Sense and Sensibility: The Musical (Wellesley Summer Theatre), and Juno in Semele (Harvard Early Music Society). She is also pleased to be in her third season as an ensemble member with Boston Lyric Opera, and to make her debut with the Boston Midsummer Opera in this role.
Bass Jason Budd returns to Boston Midsummer Opera in the role of Plunkett. Last season he made his South American debut as the title character in Verdi’s Falstaff with Theatro São Pedro in São Paulo, Brazil. Most recent engagements include Bartolo in IlBarbiere di Siviglia with the Michigan Opera Theatre, Boston Midsummer Opera’s Kecal in The Bartered Bride and Falstaff in The Merry Wives of WindsorIl Barbiere di Siviglia with Opera Western Reserve where he shared the stage with his college friend Lawrence Brownlee in their hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, Benoit/Alcindoro in La Bohème with Toledo Opera, Bartolo in Le Nozze di Figarowith Michigan Opera Theatre, Bartolo in Il Barbiere di Siviglia with The Bar Harbor Music Festival, and Major General in Pirates of Penzance at Fresno Grand Opera. Previously he has performed with Orlando Opera, Augusta Opera, Opera Birmingham, Piedmont Opera, Lyric Opera Cleveland and Opera Carolina.
Bass-baritone David Cushing (Sir Tristan)’s recent appearances include the title role in Don Pasquale, Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro, Frère Laurence in Roméo et Juliette and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This season, Mr. Cushing performed Sarastro in The Magic Flute and Monterone in Rigoletto with Boston Lyric Opera, as well as the Speaker in The Magic Flute with Opera Tampa. In recent seasons, he has performed in John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby with Emmanuel Music at Jordan Hall and the Tanglewood Festival; Tom in Un Ballo in Maschera with Opera Tampa; Masetto in Don Giovanni, Nourabad in Les Pêcheurs des Perles, Bonze in Madama Butterfly, Count Horn/Tom in Un Ballo in Maschera and Dr. Grenvil in La traviata with Opera Colorado; Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte with Florentine Opera of Milwaukee; Leporello in Don Giovanni at the Syracuse Opera; Masetto in Don Giovanni with Florentine Opera of Milwaukee, Nashville Opera and Opera New Jersey; the Bonze in Madama Butterfly with Opera Theatre of St. Louis; Fifth Jew and Capadoccian in Salome with Michigan Opera Theatre; Colline in La bohème with Opera Columbus; Alidoro in La Cenerentola with Lake George Opera; Dr. Dulcamara in L’Elisir d’Amore, Masetto in Don Giovanni, and Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro with Opera North; Mephistopheles in Faust with Baltimore Concert Opera; and the leading role of Maometto in Rossini’s rarely performed opera L’Assedio di Corinto alongside renowned soprano Elizabeth Futral with the former Baltimore Opera.

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