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Friedrich von Flotow: Martha
Erna Berger (Lady Harriet), Peter Anders (Lyonel), Josef Greindl (Plumkett), Else Tegetthoff (Nancy), Eugen Fuchs (Lord Tristan Mickleford), Franz Sauer (The Sheriff of Richmond), Chor der Staatsoper Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Johannes Schüler (conductor)
Recorded at the Funkhaus an der Masurenallee, Berlin (October 17-19, 1944) – 103’23
Two CDs Brilliant Classics 94681 – Booklet in English

Opera history is full of works that have fallen by the wayside, some to eventually be resurrected, others still waiting in the wings. Among the latter is Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha, a hit from the day of its premiere in Vienna in 1847 until...when?...the 1960s perhaps. The tenor lead role was one Enrico Caruso specialized in (in Italian) – and the 1951 semi-fictional biopic The Great Caruso showed him dying on stage at the Metropolitan Opera while performing in Martha. Perhaps too much repetition caused audience – and critical – fatigue, or maybe a degree of cuteness crept into its performances (as evidenced by the 1969 recording under Robert Heger).

Whatever problems the work might have developed, none are in evidence in this sparkling recording made in Berlin in 1944. Yes, Berlin – and yes, 1944. Many of the performers in the recording had been part of a successful production of the work at the Berlin Staatsoper unter den Linden starting in 1936. The Staatsoper was bombed in 1941, but cast, orchestra and chorus were assembled for recording sessions in a state-of-the art broadcasting facility built in 1930 and still in use today. German recording technology was the best in the world and this is demonstrated by the startling vividness of this recording. I had a vinyl set on the BASF label of highlights from Martha and other works recorded in this era and am delighted at the reissue of this almost-complete performance.

There are a couple of spots that fail to fully flatter the voices, but aside from this there is little to betray the age of the recording. In no way is the sound boxy, dim, scratchy, distant, grey or antique in any way. Another plus is the informative article in the booklet by Einhard Luther.

The plot focuses on a young couple who meet under unusual circumstances and are attracted to each other. Circumstances part them, but things come out all right in the end. It’s set in England during the reign of Queen Anne; a bored young noblewoman, Lady Harriet Durham, and her maid, Nancy, jokingly attend a servants’ fair to hire themselves out, using the names Martha and Julia. Lady Harriet’s tiresome cousin (and wooer), Lord Tristan Mickleford, accompanies them as “Bob”. Two young farmers, Plumkett (bass) and his foster-brother, Lyonel (tenor), hire them. The women are dismayed when it becomes clear they have entered a legally enforceable contract. They are taken to the farm where they prove to be incompetent at their jobs (the very word “Arbeit” strikes terror); in spite of budding feelings of affection, they flee. Some time later, Lady Harriet is riding with a group that includes Queen Anne. Lyonel spies her and identifies her as his runaway maid. She declares he must be insane and Lyonel is taken away – but he has a mysterious ring that was given him by his late father, which he then sends to the queen. It turns out to be proof that he is of noble birth, and he is released. Contrite Lady Harriet successfully devises a way to rekindle their romance.

Although Flotow was German, he lived in Paris where he absorbed French and Italian influences. The performances bring out every bit of French panache and Italian brio, not to mention the personalities of the performers. Erna Berger sparkles in the title role of Lady Harriet/Martha. Peter Anders’ youthful voice soars and glows as the lovelorn Lyonel. Bass Josef Greindl (Plumkett) is no country bumpkin, but a man with a degree of dignity. Lord Tristan is an exemplar for Richard Strauss’s Baron Ochs but is not allowed to go on at such length. The cartoonish fanfare introducing him says it all. He is ably portrayed by Eugen Fuchs who, like Else Tegetthoff (Nancy), had been in the 1936 production. The whole cast plus chorus and orchestra give evidence of a tight, thoroughly-prepared ensemble under conductor Johannes Schüler.

The two most famous numbers are the soprano’s “Letzte Rose” (“The Last Rose of Summer”) the tune of which recurs several times subsequently always to wonderful effect, and the tenor’s “Ach, so fromm” (widely known in Italian as “M’appari”). Berger and Anders are superb in these numbers as throughout the work. But there is much else to enjoy, notably fizzing music for the chorus. Everyone seems to be enjoying the whole experience.

The libretto is a marvel of conciseness; there are no longueurs as the four acts whiz by in under two hours. I have seen a performance of the work, at Vienna’s Volksoper in 2006, conducted by Alfred Eschwé and directed by Michael McCaffrey. It’s a viable work – as this recording also demonstrates.

My delight in this recording is diminished by two factors. The first is that the work is not recorded complete. There are three missing chunks. The first is the final scene in Act II after the fake maids have managed to flee their employers; as a result we miss out on Lyonel and Plumkett’s startled reactions. The second ellipsis occurs during the hunt scene in Act III when we are deprived of a lively little aria by Nancy (“Jägerin, Schlau in Sinn”) and its linked chorus. Most damaging is the loss of the end of Act III when Lyonel comes up with the idea of presenting his mysterious ring to the queen, and then the start of Act IV with its lovely repeat of the “Letzte Rose” theme and then Lady Harriet’s aria in which she vows to reconcile with Lyonel.

The second factor is the lack of a libretto. The Brilliant Classics website contains one (although it is a complete text and doesn’t indicate the missing sections). The website also has a separate English translation which is useful although awkward to follow as both the German and English text are laid out in three columns per page, plus the page breaks don’t match up. O for the days of the LP booklets and their side-by-side translations!

The adjective “charming” is usually used in a dismissive sense to describe something that is basically negligible. The word can also mean “enchanting” and in this sense it applies to Martha. A clever opera management really ought to hire a production team that can restore its sparkle; the work can easily stand up to, say, L’elisir d’amore, Les Pêcheurs de perles or other such works used to lighten a season amongst heavier fare.

Michael Johnson




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