Music with Ease > 19th Century German Opera (except Wagner) > Martha (Flotow) - Synopsis
Martha - Synopsis
An Opera by Friedrich von Flotow
Opera in four acts, by Friedrich von Flotow; words by Wilhelm Friedrich Riese, the plot based on a French ballet pantomime by Jules H. Vernoy and Marquis St. Georges (see p. 559). Produced at the Imperial Opera House, Vienna, November 25, 1847. Covent Garden, London, July 1, 1858, in Italian; in English at Drury Lane, October 11, 1858. Paris, Théâtre Lyrique, December 16, 1865, when was interpolated the famous air "MAppari," from Flotows two-act opera, "LAme en Peine," produced at the Grand Opéra, Paris, June, 1846. New York, Niblos Garden, November 1, 1852, with Mme. Anna Bishop; in French, at New Orleans, January 27, 1860. An opera of world-wide popularity, in which, in this country, the title role has been sung by Nilsson, Patti, Gerster, Kellogg, Parepa Rosa, and Sembrich, and Lionel by Campanini and Caruso.
LADY HARRIET DURHAM, Maid of Honor to Queen Anne
LORD TRISTAN DE MIKLEFORD, her cousin
PLUNKETT, young farmer
LIONEL, his foster-brother; afterwards Earl of Derby
NANCY, waiting-maid to Lady Harriet
THREE MAN SERVANTS
Tenor and two Basses
THREE MAID SERVANTS
Soprano and Mezzo-soprano
Courtiers, pages, ladies, hunters and huntresses, farmers, servants, etc.
Time: About 1710.
Place: In and near Richmond.
The first act opens in Lady Harriets boudoir. The second scene of this act is the fair at Richmond. The scene of the second act is laid in Plunketts farm-house; that of the third in a forest near Richmond. The fourth act opens in the farm-house and changes to Lady Harriets park.
Act I. Scene I. The Lady Harriet yawned. It was dull even at the court of Queen Anne.
"Your Ladyship," said Nancy, her sprightly maid, "here are flowers from Sir Tristan."
"Their odour sickens me," was her ladyships weary comment.
"And these diamonds!" urged Nancy, holding up a necklace for her mistress to view.
"They hurt my eyes," said her ladyship petulantly.
The simple fact is the Lady Harriet, like many others whose pleasures come so easily that they lack zest, was bored. Even the resourceful Nancy, a prize among maids, was at last driven to exclaim:
"If your ladyship only would fall in love!"
But herein, too, Lady Harriet had the surfeit that creates indifference. She had bewitched every man at court only to remain unmoved by their protestations of passions. Even as Nancy spoke, a footman announced the most persistent of her ladyships suitors, Sir Tristan of Mikleford, an elderly cousin who presumed upon his relationship to ignore the rebuffs with which she met his suit. Sir Tristan was a creature of court etiquette. His walk, his gesture, almost his speech itself were reduced to rule and method. He stiffness that came with age made his exaggerated manner the more ridiculous. In fact he was the incarnation of everything that the Lady Harriet was beginning to find intolerably tedious.
"Most respected cousin, Lady in Waiting to Her Most Gracious Majesty," he began sententiously, and would have added all her titles has she not cut him short with an impatient gesture, "will your ladyship seek diversion by viewing the donkey races with me to-day?"
"I wonder," Nancy whispered so that none but her mistress could hear, "if he is going to run in the races himself?" which evoked from the Lady Harriet the first smile that had played around her lips that day. Seeing this and attributing it to her pleasure at his invitation Sir Tristan sighed like a wheezy bellows and cast sentimental glances at her with his watery eyes. To stop this ridiculous exhibition of vanity her ladyship straightway sent him trotting about the room on various petty pretexts. "Fetch my fan, Sir! -- Now my smelling salts -- I feel a draught. Would you close the window, cousin? Ah, I stifle for what of air! Open it again!"
To these commands Sir Tristan responded with as much alacrity as his stiff joints would permit, until Nancy again whispered to her mistress, "See! He is running for the prize!"
Likely enough Sir Tristans fair cousin soon would have sent him on some errand that would have taken him out of her presence. But when he opened the window again, in came the strains of a merry chorus sung by fresh, happy voices of young women who, evidently, were walking along the highway. The Lady Harriets curiosity was piqued. Who were these women over whose lives ennui never seemed to have hung like a pall? Nancy knew all about them. They were servants on the way to the Richmond fair to hire themselves out to the farmers, according to time-honoured custom.
The Richmond fair! To her ladyships jaded senses it conveyed a suggestion of something new and frolicsome. "Nancy," she cried, carried away with the novelty of the idea, "let us go to the fair dressed as peasant girls and mingle with the crowd! Who knows, someone might want to hire us! I will call myself Martha, you can be Julia, and you, cousin, can drop your title for the nonce and go along with us as plain Bob!" And when Sir Tristan shocked at the thought that a titled lady should be willing so to lower herself, to say nothing of the part he himself was asked to play, protested, she appealed to him with a feigned tenderness that soon won his consent to join them in their lark. Then to give him a foretaste of what was expected of him, they took him, each by an arm, and danced him about the room, shouting with mock admiration as he half slid, half stumbled, "Bravo! What grace! What agility!"
The Lady Harriet actually was enjoying herself.
Scene 2. Meanwhile the Richmond fair was at its height. From a large parchment the pompous Sheriff had read the law by which all contracts for services made at the fair were binding for at least one year as soon as money had passed. Among those who had come to bid were a study young farmer, Plunkett, and his foster brother Lionel. The latter evidently was of a gentler birth, but his parentage was shrouded in mystery. As a child he had been left with Plunketts mother by a fugitive, an aged man who, dying from exposure and exhaustion, had confided the boy to her care, first, however, handing her a ring with the injunction that if misfortune ever threatened the boy, to show the ring to the queen.
One after another the girls proclaimed their deftness at cooking, sewing, gardening, poultry tending, and other domestic and rural accomplishments, the Sheriff crying out, "Four guineas! Wholl have her? -- Five guineas! Wholl try her?" Many of them cast eyes at the two handsome young farmers, hoping to be engaged by them. But they seemed more critical than the rest.
Just then they heard a young womans voice behind them call out, "No, I wont go with you!" and, turning, they saw two sprightly young women arguing with a testy looking old man who seemed to have a ridiculous idea of his own importance. Lionel and Plunkett nudged each other. Never had they seen such attractive looking girls. And when they heard one of them call out again to the old man, "No, we wont go with you!" -- for Sir Tristan was urging the Lady Harriet and Nancy to leave the fair -- the young men hurried over to the group.
"Cant you hear her say she wont go with you?" asked Lionel, while Plunkett called out to the girls near the Sheriffs stand, "Here, girls, is a bidder with lots of money!" A moment later the absurd old man was the center of a rioting, shouting crowd of girls, who followed him when he tried to retreat, so that finally "Martha" and "Julia" were left quite alone with the two men. The young women were in high spirits. They had sallied forth in quest of adventure and here it was. Lionel and Plunkett, on the other hand, suddenly had become very shy. There was in the demeanour of these girls something quite different from what they had been accustomed to in other serving maids. Somehow they had an "air," and it made the young men bashful. Plunkett tried to push Lionel forward, but the latter hung back.
"Watch me then," said Plunkett. He advanced as if to speak to the young women, but came to a halt and stood there covered with confusion. It chanced that Lady Harriet and Nancy had been watching these men with quite as much interest as they had been watched by them. Lionel, who bore himself with innate grace and refinement under his peasant garb, had immediately attracted "Martha," while the sturdier Plunkett had caught "Julias" eye, and they were glad when, after a few slyly reassuring glances from them, Plunkett overcame his hesitancy and spoke up:
"Youre our choice, girls! Well pay fifty crowns a year for wages, with half a pint of ale on Sundays and plum pudding on New Years thrown in for extras."
"Done!" cried the girls, who thought it all a great lark, and a moment later the Lady Harriet had placed her hand in Lionels and Nancy hers in Plunketts and money had passed to bind the bargain.
And now, thinking the adventure had gone far enough and that it was time for them to returning to court, they cast about them for Sir Tristan. He, seeing them talking on apparently intimate terms with two farmers, was scandalized and, having succeeded in standing off the crowd by scattering money about him, he called out brusquely, "Come away!"
"Come away?" repeated Plunkett after him. "Come away? Didnt these girls let you know plainly enough a short time ago that they wouldnt hire out to you?"
"But I rather think," interposed "Martha," who was becoming slightly alarmed, "that it is time for Julia and myself to go."
"Whats that!" exclaimed Plunkett. "Go? No, indeed," he added with emphasis. "You may repent of your bargain, though I dont see why. But it is binding for a year."
"If only you knew who," began Sir Tristan, and he was about to tell who the young women were. But "Martha" quickly whispered to him not to disclose their identity, as the escapade, if it became known, would make them the sport of the court. Moreover Plunkett and Lionel were growing impatient at the delay and, when the crowd again gathered about Sir Tristan, they hurried off the girls, -- who did not seem to protest as much as might have been expected, -- lifted them into a farm wagon, and drove off, while the crowd blocked the blustering knight and jeered as he vainly tried to break away in pursuit.
Act II. The adventure of the Lady Harriet and her maid Nancy, so lightly entered upon, was carrying them further than they had expected. To find themselves set down in a humble farmhouse, as they did soon after they left the fair, and to be told to go into the kitchen and prepare supper, was more than they had bargained for.
"Kitchen work!" exclaimed the Lady Harriet contemptuously.
"Kitchen work!" echoed Nancy in the same tone of voice.
Plunkett was for having his orders carried out. But Lionel interceded. A certain innate gallantry that already had appealed to her ladyship, made him feel that although these young women were servants, they were, somehow, to be treated differently. He suggested as a substitute for the kitchen that they be allowed to try their hands at the spinning wheels. But they were so awkward at these that the men sat down to show them how to spin, until Nancy brought the lesson to an abrupt close by saucily overturning Plunketts wheel and dashing away with the young farmer in pursuit, leaving Lionel and "Martha" alone.
It was an awkward moment for her ladyship, since she could hardly fail to be aware that Lionel was regarding her with undisguised admiration. To relieve the situation she began to hum and, finally, to sing, choosing her favorite air, "The Last Rose of Summer." But it had the very opposite effect of what she had planned. For she sang the charming melody so sweetly and with such tender expression that Lionel, completely carried away, exclaimed: "Ah, Martha, if you were to marry me, you no longer would be a servant, for I would raise you to my own station!"
As Lionel stood there she could not help noting that he was handsome and graceful. Yet that a farmer should suggest to her, the spoiled darling of the court, that he would raise her to his station, struck her as so ridiculous that she burst out laughing. Just then, fortunately, Plunkett dragged in Nancy, whom he had pursued into the kitchen, where she had upset things generally before he had been able to seize her; and a distant tower clock striking midnight, the young farmers allowed their servants, whose accomplishments as such, if they had any, so far remained undiscovered, to retire to their room, while they sought theirs, but not before Lionel had whispered:
"Perchance by the morrow, Martha, you will think differently of what I have said and not treat it so lightly."
Act III. But when morning came the birds had flown the cage. There was neither a Martha nor a Julia in the little farmhouse, while at the court of Queen Anne a certain Lady Harriet and her maid Nancy were congratulating themselves that, after all, an old fop named Sir Tristan of Mikleford had had sense enough to be in waiting with a carriage near the farmhouse at midnight and helped them escape through the window. It even is not unlikely that within a week the Lady Harriet, who was so anxious not to have her escapade become known, might have been relating it at court as a merry adventure and that Nancy might have been doing the same in the servants hall. But unbeknown to the others, there had been a fifth person in the little farmhouse, none other than Dan Cupid, who had hidden himself, perhaps behind the clock, and from this vantage place of concealment had discharged arrows, not at random, but straight at the hearts of two young women and tow young men. And they had not recovered from their wounds. The Lady Harriet no longer was bored; she was sad; and even Nancy had lost her sprightliness. The two men, one of them so courteous despite his peasant garb, the other sturdy and commanding, with whom their adventure had begun at the Richmond fair and ended after midnight at the farmhouse, had brought some zest into their lives; they were so different from the smooth, insincere courtiers by whom the Lady Harriet had been surrounded and from the men servants who aped their masters and with whom Nancy had been thrown when she was not with her ladyship. The simple fact is that the Lady Harriet and Nancy, without being certain of it themselves, were in love, her ladyship with Lionel and Nancy with Plunkett. Of course, there was the difference in station between Lady Harriet and Lionel. But he had the touch of innate breeding that made her at times forget that he was a peasant while she was a lady of title. As for Nancy and Plunkett, that lively young woman felt that she needed just such a strong hand as his to keep her out of mischief. And so it happened that the diversions of the court again palled upon them and that, when a great hunt was organized in which the court ladies were asked to join, the Lady Harriet, although she looked most dapper in her hunting costume, found the sport without zest and soon wandered off into the forest solitudes.
Here, too, it chanced that Lionel, in much the same state of mind and heart as her ladyship, was wandering, when, suddenly looking up, he saw a young huntress in whom, in spite of her different costume, he recognized the "Martha" over whose disappearance he had been grieving. But she was torn by conflicting feelings. However her heart might go out toward Lionel, her pride of birth still rebelled against permitting a peasant to address words of love to her. "You are mistaken. I do not know you!" she exclaimed. And when he first appealed to her in passionate accents and then in anger began to upbraid her for denying her identity to him who was by law her master, she cried out for help, bringing not only Sir Tristan but the entire hunting train to her side. Noting the deference with which she was treated and hearing her called "My Lady," Lionel now perceived the trick that had been played upon himself and Plunkett at the fair. Infuriated at the heartless deceit of which he was a victim, he protested: "But if she accepted earnest money from me, if she bound herself to serve me for a year--"
He was interrupted by a shout of laughter from the bystanders, and the Lady Harriet, quickly profiting by the incredulity with which his words were received, exclaimed:
"I never have laid eyes on him before. He is a madman and should be apprehended!"
Immediately Lionel was surrounded and might have been roughly handled, had not my lady herself, moved partly by pity, partly by a deeper feeling that kept asserting itself in spite of all, begged that he be kindly treated.
Act IV. Before very long, however, there was a material change in the situation. In his extremity, Lionel remembered about his ring and he asked Plunkett to show it to the queen and plead his cause. The ring proved to have been the property of the earl of Derby. It was that nobleman who, after the failure of a plot to recall James II from France and restore him to the throne, had died a fugitive and confided his son to the care of Plunketts mother, and that son was none other than Lionel, now discovered to be the rightful heir to the title and estates. Naturally he was received with high favor at the court of Anne, the daughter of the king to whom the old earl had rendered such faithful service.
Despite his new honours, however, Lionel was miserably unhappy. He was deeply in love with the Lady Harriet. Yet he hardly could bring himself to speak to her, let alone appear so much as even to notice the advances which she, in her contrition, so plainly made toward him. So, while she too suffered, he went about lonely and desolate, eating out his heart with love and the feeling of injured pride that prevented him from acknowledging it.
This sad state of affairs might have continued indefinitely had not Nancys nimble wit come to the rescue. She and Plunkett, after meeting again, had been quick in coming to an understanding, and now the first thing they did was to plan how to bring together Lionel and the Lady Harriet, who were so plainly in love with each other. One afternoon Plunkett joined Lionel in his lonely walk and, unknown to him, gradually guided him into her ladyships garden. A sudden turn in the path brought them in view of a bustling scene. There were booths as at the Richmond fair, a crowd of servants and farmers and a sheriff calling out the accomplishments of the girls. As the crowd saw the two men, there was a hush. Then above it Lionel heard a sweet, familiar voice singing:
Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.
Ill not leave thee, thou lone one,
To pine on the stem;
Since the lonely are sleeping,
Go sleep thou with them,
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves oer the bed --
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.
The others quickly vanished. "Martha!" cried Lionel. "Martha! Is it really you?" She stood before him in her servants grab, no longer, however, smiling and coquettish as at Richmond, but with eyes cast down and sad.
And then as if answering to a would-be masters question of "What can you do?" she said: "I can forget all my dreams of wealth and gold. I can despise all the dross in which artifice and ignoble ambition mask themselves. I can put all these aside and remember only those accents of love and tenderness that I would have fall upon my hearing once more." She raised her eyes pleadingly to Lionel. All that had intervened was swept away. Lionel saw only the girl he loved. And, a moment later, he held his "Martha" in his arms.
"Martha" teems with melody. The best known airs are "The Last Rose of Summer" and Lionels "Mappari" (Like a dream). The best ensemble piece, a quintet with chorus, occurs near the close of Act III. -- "Ah! che a voi perdoni Iddio" (Ah! May Heaven to you grant pardon). The spinning-wheel quartet in Act II, is most sprightly. But, as indicated, there is a steady flow of light and graceful melody in this opera. Almost at the very opening of Act I, Lady Harriet and Nancy have a duet, "Que sto duol che si vaffano" (Of the knights so brave and charming). Bright, clever music abounds in the Richmond fair scene, and Lionel and Plunkett express their devotion to each other in "Solo, profugo, regetto" (Lost, prescribed, a friendless wanderer), and "Ne giammai saper potemmo" (Never have we learned his station). Then there is the gay quartet when the two girls leave the fair with their masters, while the crowd surrounds Sir Tristan and prevents him from breaking through and interfering. It was in this scene that the bass snger Castelmary, the Sir Tristan of a performance of "Martha" at the Metropolitan Opera House, February 10, 1897, was stricken with heart failure and dropped dead upon the stage.
A capital quartet opens Act II, in the farmhouse, and leads to the spinning-wheel quartet, "Di vederlo" (What a charming occupation). There is a duet between Lady Harriet and Lionel, in which their growing attraction for each other finds expression, "I1 suo sguardo e dolce tanto" (To his eye, mine gently meeting). Then follows "Qui sola, vergin rosa" (Tis the last rose of summer), the words a poem by Tom Moore, the music an old Irish air, "The Groves of Blarney," to which Moore adapted "The Last Rose of Summer." A new and effective touch is given to the old song by Flotow in having the tenor join with the soprano at the close. Moreover, the words and music fit so perfectly into the situation on the stage that for Flotow to have "lifted" and interpolated them into his opera was a master-stroke. To it "Martha" owes much of its popularity.
There is a duet for Lady Harriet and Lionel, "Ah! ride del mio pianto" (She is laughing at my sorrow). The scene ends with another quartet, one of the most beautiful numbers of the score, and known as the "Good Night Quartet," "Dormi pur, ma il mio riposo" (Cruel one, may dreams transport thee).
Act III, played in a hunting park in Richmond forest, on the left a small inn, opens with a song in praise of porter, the "Canzone del Porter" by Plunkett, "Chi mi dira" (Will you tell me). The pièces de résistance of this act are the "MAppari"; a solo for Nancy, "Il tuo stral nel lanciar"
(Huntress fair, hastens where); Martha's song, "Qui tranquilla almen posso" (Here in deepest forest shadows); and the stirring quintet with chorus.
In Act IV there are a solo for Plunkett, "Il mio Lionel periri" (Soon my Lionel will perish), and a repetition of some of the sprightly music of the fair scene.
It is not without considerable hesitation that I have classed "Martha" as a French opera. For Flotow was born in Teutendorf, April 27, 1812, and died in Darmstadt January 24, 1883. Moreover, "Martha," was produced in Vienna, and his next best known work, "Alessandro Stradella," in Hamburg (1844).
The music of "Martha," however, has an elegance that not only is quite unlike any music that has come out of Germany, but is typically French. Flotow, in fact, was French in his musical training, and both the plot and score of "Martha" were French in origin. The composer studied composition in Paris under Reicha, 1827-30, leaving Paris solely on account of the July revolution, and returning in 1835, to remain until the revolution in March, 1848, once more drove him away. After living in Paris again, 1863-8, he settled near Vienna, making, however, frequent visits to that city, the French capital, and Italy.
During his second stay in Paris he composed for the Grand Opéra the first act of a ballet, "Harriette, ou la Servante de Greenwiche." This ballet, the text by Vernoy and St. George, was for Adèle Dumilâtre. The reason Flotow was entrusted with only one of the three acts was the short time in which it was necessary to complete the score. The other acts were assigned, one each, to Robert Bergmüller abd Edouard Deldevez. Of this ballet, written and composed for a French dancer and a French audience, "Martha" is an adaptation. This accounts for its being so typically French and not in the slightest degree German. Flotows opera "Alessandro Stradella" also is French in origin. It is adapted from a one-act pièce lyrique, brought out by him in Paris, in 1837. Few works produced so long ago as "Martha" have its freshness, vivacity, and charm. Pre-eminently graceful, it yet carries in a large auditorium like the Metropolitan, where so many operas of the lighter variety have been lost in space.