An enthusiastic and packed house at the Tsai Center at Boston University on Wednesday enjoyed Boston Midsummer Opera’s Opening Night of a condensed, English-language presentation of Friedrich von Flotow’s charming Romantic opera Martha, or the Fair at Richmond. The libretto for this production was adapted by Stage Director James O’Leary from the well-known contemporary English translation by Donald Pippin. Repeat performances, featuring the same cast, will follow on Friday and Sunday.
This light-hearted comic work combines the conventions of early 19th-century farce (represented through a variety of roles for tenors, baritones, and basses) with demanding coloratura roles for the two upper-class leading ladies (soprano Harriet/Martha and contralto Nancy/Julia). It is the first German comic opera to abandon spoken dialogue and employ continuous music, so the nuanced conducting of Susan Davenny Wyner of her own scaled-down orchestration (18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124, 11 strings, harp, and percussion) was a crucial component of the success of this production. The balance among the soloists, chorus, and orchestra was excellent, with notable contributions by several small ensembles of singers, including the opening grouping of maids, several lovely quartets by the principals, and a trio of men acting as locals and guards.
For the setting in rural England, von Flotow famously included a popular Irish air, The Last Rose of Summer, for both the leading soprano and her primary love interest (Lyonel, a lyric tenor). This interpolation had become common by the 1840s, as both Irish and English plays typically inserted folk or patriotic songs to heighten the local color and intensify longing for the “simpler life” of rural folk. The most influential Romantic example of this practice dates to 1864, in which “The Wearing of the Green” (a street ballad which later became an anthem for Irish independence and cultural preservation) was featured in Dion Boucicault’s play Arragh na Pogue (set in County Wicklow during the 1798 rebellion).
The original German libretto is structured in couplets, and the plot revolves around two lower-born men, seeking, finding, loosing, and pursuing two ladies of Queen Anne’s court who choose on a lark to offer themselves as servants on contract. In its dependence on disguises, mistaken identities, bucolic settings, crowd scenes, and sincere emotions from the principal characters, the work bears a superficial similarity to Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Boston’s Oliver Ditson & Co. published an early English/Italian/German piano-vocal score (1860) and Sir Arthur Sullivan edited an influential German/English publication of the score for Boosey in 1880. This production adapts Donald Pippin’s contemporary American version of the libretto, created in 1981 for his San Francisco Pocket Opera.
Spanish-American tenor Eric Barry, who repeatedly brought down the house with his ardent portrayal of Lyonel, soared above the orchestra with a fine, well-focused tone and impeccable diction. The hilarious basso buffo role of Sir Tristan, a friend of the two leading ladies and Falstaffian fool, was portrayed with foppish glee by David Cushing; he dominated the stage vocally and provided light-hearted commentary on the mores of the English nobility.
Courtier (Lady) Harriet, who poses as the servant girl Martha, was masterfully sung by Joanna Mongiardo; this demanding coloratura role would be more effective when sung in a language less familiar to the audience (or when super-titled), as its extremes of tessitura, common to French comic soprano leads, made it difficult to appreciate the comedy implicit in her words. Nonetheless, her acting and rock-solid technique provided a fascinating contrast to the lighter baritone and bass “rustic” roles used to frame her character throughout the score.
Stephanie Kacoyanis (Nancy/Julia) and Jason Budd (Farmer Plunkett) improved steadily throughout the evening; their final duet, a mixture of flirting and insinuating humor, proved the two to be perfectly matched, both in vocal brilliance and comic timing.
The numerous highlights of the score include “The Last Rose of Summer”, Plunkett’s Act II Ode to beer-drinking, and Lyonel’s masterful showstopper “One Lovely Night” (originally “Ach, so fromm” or familiarly in Italian, “M’appari tutt’ amor”). Ironically, “M’appari,” the most famous romanza from the score (originally in Act III, and featured in Act II of this performance) was not originally written for this opera, but for Friedrich von Flotow’s L’âme en peine, produced by the Paris opera in 1846.
Music Director Davenny Wyner condensed the original four acts to a more manageable two, in which form notable contributions came from principal clarinet Gary Gorczyca, bassoon Hazel Malcolmson, and the two French horns Alyssa Daly and Frederick Aldrich. Oboist Jennifer Slowik and harpist Amanda Romano excelled in their ravishing duets for “The Last Rose of Summer,” matching the bucolic tone of the setting. Cellist Sam Ou highlighted the score’s lyricism through his expressive playing, and anchored the incisive string textures in von Flotow’s recitatives.
Publisher Lee Eiseman’s extensive interview with director James O’Leary and tenor Eric Barry appeared earlier this week in this journal here.
Photos of costumes and a preliminary set design accompany that article, and Eiseman comments further on the opening performance: “Stage director James O’Leary saw to it that everyone moved well and had something to do, but more importantly, he gave us the humor and pathos without relying on excessive camp or studied stage agony. The economical, clever and flexible set of Stephen Dobay managed to adapt through clever manipulations for the story’s diverse scenes. John Cuff’s many lighting cues served not only to evoke times of day, indoors and out, but beyond that, to highlight musical line. The sliding harlequin/foliage backdrop pleasantly surprised us when it vertices all lighted up for a starry night.”
Costume designer Elisabetta Polito created a diverse variety of traditional and contemporary pieces, using a humorous variety of Ralph-Lauren-like bedspread fabrics for the ladies of the English court and loose, layered jackets to differentiate the many male characters. Harriet, Nancy, and Tristan’s huge wigs emphasized their antics and visually distinguished them from the English villagers attending the Richmond Fair. When Harriet and Nancy appeared without wigs throughout the second act, they modified their vocal production to match their new desires and (lower?) stations. Costumes and singing styles blended to emphasize the newfound purity of the characters.
Von Flotow’s music continues to be featured in films and light concerts, and this wonderful, uplifting production is perfect for a warm summer evening. Tickets, $40-$60 for all performances, are available online here
The original German-language version, stretching to four acts, premiered in Vienna’s Hof-Operntheater (next to the Kärntnerthor) in 1847. It was adapted from a popular French ballet-pantomime by J. H. Vernoy de Saint-Georges entitled Lady Henriette, or the Servant Girl of Greenwich (1844) with a new text by Friedrich Wilhelm Riese. Composer Friedrich von Flotow had written the music for one act of Saint-Georges’ ballet, and created both the full score and the orchestration for the 1847 opera.
The premiere was lauded by dignitaries including the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand (1793-1875), and Johann Strauss, Sr. adapted many of the most famous tunes into his Martha-Quadrille, op. 215. Strauss’s December 1847 performances of his medley of von Flotow’s tunes, along with a quick publication of piano arrangements of both the Quadrille and songs from the full opera ensured wide distribution and familiarity with Martha’s best melodies. Strauss followed his original collection with three additional figures (movements for quadrille dancers) in successive publications.
By the summer of 1849, the work had been shortened slightly and presented (still in the original German) at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Johann Strauss the Younger also requested a copy of von Flotow’s score, and made his own independent arrangement of almost completely different melodies from Martha during an 1848 tour of the Balkans. When the full score was finally published (in German and Italian), the opera had been significantly shortened, and many of the dance sequences were removed.