A discographical survey by Ralph Moore
My interest in this now somewhat neglected minor masterpiece was reawakened by becoming acquainted with a live recording of Martha from Sadlers Wells in 1957, sung in a good English translation by an excellent cast battling against a corps of enthusiastic coughers in the audience, which was kindly sent to me by a friend. It is a tautly constructed opera, full of delightful tunes and representative of the kind of escapist frivolity which is most welcome in our anxiety-ridden modern age. It was immensely popular in the 19C following its Viennese premiere in 1847 and Lyonel was one of Caruso’s favourite roles – sung in Italian, of course, as Lionello – but it gradually fell out of favour from the 1920s onwards until it enjoyed something of a revival in the 1980s.
Flotow was German but Paris-trained and this is the work for which he is chiefly – if not almost solely – remembered. It is in the tradition of Auber, more akin to an operetta in its frothy elegance, but without any spoken dialogue and I maintain that it is musically superior to anything of that French school. It is essentially a romantic comedy without too many shadows – the darkest passage, when the atmosphere turns tragic, is in last act when Lyonel spurns the deceitful but repentant Harriet, who has broken his heart, before they are reconciled – and it is rather of its time with its attitudes to class and women, but harmless enough and potentially genuinely funny. Ironically, its most famous aria is not by the composer, but an Irish folk song set to the poet Thomas Moore’s words, “The Last Rose of Summer”, but also justly celebrated are Lyonel’s aria “Ach! so fromm, ach! so traut” (often sung in Italian as “M’apparì tutt’amor”) and several other numbers, such as the Overture – formerly a frequently played concert item – the Spinning Wheel Quartet, the Porter’s Drinking Song, the Good Night Quartet and the quintet concluding Act III “Mag der Himmel Euch vergeben” (May Heaven forgive you).
Flotow was multilingual and after its premiere Martha was soon performed across Europe in a variety of languages. It was for a while most often heard in Italian but is now usually encountered in the original German; however, it seems to work very well in any language.
Considering how popular it has been and how tuneful it is, it hasn’t received that many recordings. I discuss here five complete recordings, only one of which is in Italian and somewhat abridged; the rest are in German. I also review a disc of excerpts which I have included for its exceptional quality, arising mainly from the presence of Fritz Wunderlich. There is another recording of a live performance in English from the Met in 1961 but that is desirable exclusively for the contribution of Victoria de los Ángeles; otherwise, as this MWI review makes clear, for reasons of sound and performance, it is not a contender. The latest recording is from as recently as 2018 but is of course live, not studio-made. It was favourably reviewed by another MWI colleague, Göran Forsling; see below for my own assessment. There are two studio recordings on the Cantus label from 1955 and 1960 which don’t seem to be available and I have thus not been able to hear them; the former looks especially attractive with a cast including Wilma Lipp and Waldemar Kmentt but I don’t know if it is in mono or stereo; the latter recording has a somewhat less alluring cast. It should be noted that a complete recording should take just over two hours – although the aged Robert Heger takes 131 minutes – whereas the historic recording and the Italian mono account on Fonit Cetra are both cut to just over 100 minutes, while the excerpts conducted by Klobučar are just fifty minutes.
1944 Erna Berger (Harriet), Else Tegetthoff (Nancy), Peter Anders (Lyonel), Josef Greindl (Plumkett), Eugen Fuchs (Tristan); Chor der Staatsoper Berlin/Staatskapelle Berlin; Johannes Schüler (conductor) – Berlin Classics/Brilliant/Cantus/Aura Classics/Opera d’Oro/Phonographe, studio (cut)
This might be cut by quarter of an hour and be recorded in “historical” mono sound but I defy anyone to a) much mind the excisions b) not be amazed by the impact of the sound; the fact that it is mono is barely noticeable and the first time I played it I had to check in case I had the wrong CDs and had accidentally received a recording from the 60s. It is remarkably full with just the merest touch of “boxiness” and at first seems free of distortion, although that inevitably creeps into the ensembles – but there is no pop, crackle or rustle, which makes me wonder if it was not one of those early recordings made on magnetic tape.
The cast is starry, with immaculate technique – trills and turns all in place – headed by the great coloratura soprano Erna Berger, crystalline of tone and sparkling in manner, and the conductor is the best kind of Kapellmeister, utterly in charge of his brief and wholly at ease with the genre; this was recorded in the dark days of 1944 in a bomb-ravaged Berlin yet it bubbles along as if its participants had not a care in the world. Finally, the Berlin Classics box set comes with a full German libretto and English translation. I could halt my survey here and just advise you to buy this – but perhaps there is a little more to say and some viable alternatives, especially if you want the full score and stereo sound.
Berger is wonderful but by no means the only vocal attraction here; the sadly short-lived lyric tenor Peter Anders is ideal as Lyonel and a young Josef Greindl is a lot less gruff then he later became, not yet meriting his later jocular title of “Bayreuth’s resident cave man”. Their first duet is a joy and Anders often sounds very similar to the peerless Wunderlich. Berger does not disappoint in her pure and poised delivery of “The Last Rose of Summer”, the “Midnight” quartet is perfectly sung, played and conducted, Greindl makes a fine, rollicking job of his Drinking Song and Anders sings “Ach so fromm” very elegantly; one vocal delight succeeds another.
There is no other candidate for the “historical, in German” category – not that it would matter if there were, as this is as good as it gets, despite its sonic limitations.
1954 Elena Rizzieri (Enrichetta), Pia Tassinari (Nancy), Ferruccio Tagliavini (Lionello), Carlo Tagliabue (Plumkett), Bruno Carmassi (Tristano); Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della RAI; Francesco Molinari-Pradelli (conductor) – Fonit Cetra, studio (Marta, in Italian; cut)
Good, clean mono sound presents no barrier to enjoying this set. Molinari-Pradelli was a thoroughly admirable opera conductor, the chorus is melodious and the Torino RAI were an excellent band. The cast here is distinguished, headed by the leading tenore di grazia of the 50s, Ferruccio Tagliavini – all the boxes are ticked. There is no doubt, too, that Flotow’s opera sounds more elegant in Italian – the open vowels, for example, of “M’apparì” are surely preferable to the more guttural “Ach so fromm”, as is “Dormi pur” to “Schlafe wohl”. Elena Rizzieri and Pia Tassinari are nicely contrasted, as the latter has a dark, smoky timbre while Rizzeri is pure and piping – a bit “white” – and her final top C is ill-advised – but generally steady and expressive; Bruno Carmassi has a fruitier bass than normally sings Tristan(o) and veteran Carlo Tagliabue makes a fluent, easy-going Plumkett, sounding younger than many despite his age – which is only right as he is Lionello’s foster-brother and “a young famer” not the elderly uncle many true basses seem to portray. But it is the sweetness of Tagliavini’s tenor which constitutes the major attraction here. He makes Lionello a cousin of Ernesto in Don Pasquale or Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore, giving him an Italianate pathos and emotional sensibility. Likewise, Tassinari’s warm tones lend Nancy a Latinate sensuality.
An Italian only libretto is provided in the booklet. (As a bonus, this set includes eight arias recorded by Tagliavini in the 40s.)
1960 Anneliese Rothenberger (Harriet), Hetty Plümacher (Nancy), Fritz Wunderlich (Lyonel), Gottlob Frick (Plumkett), Georg Völker (Tristan); Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin/Berliner Symphoniker; Berislav Klobučar (conductor) – EMI, studio (NB: excerpts only)
This falls under my oxymoronic category of “essential supplement” not just for the lyrical ardour of Fritz Wunderlich’s Lyonel, but also for the pleasure of Gottlob Frick’s treacly black bass in its sonorous prime. Yes; there is a touch Hagen about his peasant but he is humorous, as when he echoes Nancy’s “Arbeit” switching from falsetto to deep bass, and he even attempts a trill. The combination of his voice and Wunderlich’s is irresistible. As much as I enjoy Karl Ridderbusch’s gentler account for Wallberg, Frick’s is more of a theatrical tour de force. Wunderlich characterises more vividly than any other Lyonel without compromising steadiness of line or beauty of tone; he is the ideal Romantic hero and can summon up some steel in his voice when required. “Ach so fromm” could not be better or more touchingly sung. Anneliese Rothenberger is lovely, too, shimmering and delicate – but of course we can also have her in the complete recording eight years later. The two supporting basses as the Sheriff and Tristan are average but aren’t given much to do; neither is mezzo Hetty Plümacher beyond one brief aria but she is firm and rich-voiced, making a valuable contribution to the duets and ensembles. “Mitternacht” is the highlight of these highlights.
Klobučar is a flexible, energised conductor and the sound is fine. What a pity this was not a complete recording; it would have swept the board.
1968 Anneliese Rothenberger (Harriet), Brigitte Fassbaender (Nancy), Nicolai Gedda (Lyonel), Hermann Prey (Plumkett), Dieter Weller (Tristan); Der Chor der Bayerischer Staatsoper München/Der Orchester der Bayerischer Staatsoper München; Robert Heger (conductor) – EMI, studio
The peculiarity of casting here is the light lyric baritone Hermann Prey as Plumkett, a role often taken by a true bass or at least a bass-baritone. In many ways that makes sense, as Plumkett is a young farmer but on the other hand his music lends itself to a fruitier voice and once you have heard the likes of Frick in the role, Prey sounds a tad pale. The other issue is Robert Heger’s rather ponderous treatment of the score, which undermines its charm; that is already apparent in an overture which takes a minute longer than almost everybody else and leans heavily on the beat. A third, personal factor for me is that I am no great fan Nicolai Gedda’s tenor, especially compared with Anders and Wunderlich; he is only in his forties here but as ever I hear an element of nasal whine and constriction in his tonal production which I dislike. Nor does he bring a classical purity of line to his singing of his arias; he tends to nudge and swoop. On the other hand, he makes more of Lyonel’s character than, for example, Siegfried Jerusalem. Anneliese Rothenberger repeats the winsome Harriet we hear in the recording of excerpts made eight years earlier but for me Popp and Berger are even better. The Sheriff is rather poor and wavery; the best and most aptly cast singer here is the young Brigitte Fassbaender; she comes through strongly in the ensembles and in fact rather overshadows Rothenberger who is not the bigger personality as perhaps she should be – and Popp is – but she sings beautifully.
The recording relies on “rhubarb, rhubarb” background crowd noises to provide atmosphere at the market, which I find a bit irritating and unnecessary but is otherwise in typically agreeable 60s EMI stereo.
This might well have been the recording whereby many people came to know this work and as such commands affection and respect, but in sum I find it underwhelming and much prefer the accounts by Schüler or Wallberg.
1977 Lucia Popp (Harriet), Doris Soffel (Nancy), Siegfried Jerusalem (Lyonel), Karl Ridderbusch (Plumkett), Siegmund Nimsgern (Tristan); Chorus of the Bavarian Radio/Munich Radio Orchestra; Heinz Wallberg (conductor) – RCA, studio
The attractions of warm analogue sound without the distractions of a live performance or the limitations of a vintage recording are immediately apparent in the grandly paced overture. Wallberg was always thoroughly reliable – another Kapellmeister of the best kind, like Johannes Schüler; I also enjoy his Hänsel und Gretel and Der Rosenkavalier. He may be grand but his direction of the duets and ensembles is livelier and more spirited than Heger’s – and he has an especially animated chorus, who along with the orchestra generate quite a head of steam in the maid-hiring scene.
Voices are placed very forward, but who minds when they are the silvery Lucia Popp and the rich-toned Doris Soffel, beautifully contrasted and providing just the kind of vocal character missing in the Weigle recording below. Similarly, the two farmers are neatly juxtaposed: Ridderbusch has a warm, burring bass but with the range to deal easily with the baritone tessitura of the role of Plumkett; he makes the best job of his display aria – complete with trill and good high notes – of all the Plumketts here. Jerusalem might not have the most expressive or mellifluous of tenors – it is always a bit cloudy – but I prefer him to Gedda and he sings elegantly, even if he makes no great impression. To be fair, however, he is more impassioned in “Sie lacht zu meinen Leiden” and he sings “Ach! so fromm” neatly, if not without the nuance of the best lyric tenors – in fact, he rather belts it. His style is better suited to the breast-beating of “Diese Hand” before the final reconciliation with Harriet. His only real flaw is that he is not Wunderlich. To complete a superb cast, Siegmund Nimsgern is ideally cast as Sir Tristan, the slight crack and graininess in his bass-baritone lending comical wackiness to his portrayal.
At that stage of her career, Lucia Popp still had the flexibility and pinging top notes of her soubrette/coloratura phase – such as the high Ds in “Den Teuren zu versöhnen”, opening the fourth act and which is often cut – but was moving into lyrical, slightly heavier roles and as such is, along with Erna Berger, the Martha of our dreams. However, this is essentially an ensemble opera and everything here gels to make this highly satisfying; sample “Mitternacht! Schlafe wohl” for a taste of the excellence on offer.
2016 Maria Bengtsson (Harriet), Katharina Magiera (Nancy), AJ Glueckert (Lyonel), Björn Bürger (Plumkett), Barnaby Rea (Tristan); Chor der Oper Frankfurt/Frankfurter Opern und Museumsorchester; Sebastian Weigle (conductor) – Oehms, live
Of course, the great advantages to this set are the superb digital sound – a little stage noise notwithstanding – and the lovely playing of the Frankfurt orchestra under Sebastian Weigle, whose work I have mostly enjoyed. Disadvantages are also apparent – some wobblers in the chorus and modern voices which also exhibit too much vibrato without displaying any great distinction of tone or the character – or what has been called “face” -compared with more distinguished predecessors. Perhaps the fact that I am not familiar with any of the singers’ names is an indication that they are not stars, but we don’t necessarily need that for a successful performance; they are all very competent even if Maria Bengtsson is a bit shrill and fluttery, Katharina Magiera lacks lower register and Barnaby Rea is “woofy”. AJ Glueckert and Björn Bürger sing pleasantly enough but are underwhelming and underpowered; sample on Spotify or YouTube their singing of their delightful opening duet “Ja, seit früher Kindheit Tagen” against any of the pairs above and judge for yourself. I know I am a “voice bore” but to me opera is primarily about singing and nothing here persuades me to recommend this above previous versions; this has a good, second-rank cast and no more. I happened to turn to the Wallberg recording straight after listening to this and for me it is like entering another world.
In effect, every one of the six recordings has merit in varying degrees but the most recent, modern recording is by far the least impressive vocally – and it will surely be a factor for some that it is expensive in comparison with the others, which may be picked up for very little, and if you want just a sampler the disc of excerpts is as good as any; you may also hear every one of them on YouTube to help you decide which – or whether – you want to purchase. I must have Wunderlich and Frick in the excerpts but my overall first recommendation is based on its being complete, in modern sound, very well performed – and cheap!
Mono in German: 1944 Schüler
Mono in Italian: 1954 Molinari-Pradelli
Stereo: 1977 Wallberg*