Opera Profile: Flotow’s ‘Martha’

By Logan Martell

Premiering on November 25, 1847, “Martha” is adapted from a ballet composed by Friedrich von Flotow titled “Harriette, ou la servant de Greenwiche.”

The ballet, which premiered three years earlier at the Paris Opera Ballet, is itself based on a story written by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. Though not a regular in the repertory of opera houses today, “Martha” has enjoyed great success in the 19th and 20th centuries, the latter particularly due to a production done by the Metropolitan Opera, which saw the legendary Enrico Caruso singing in his native language of Italian.

Short Plot Summary

Lady Harriet sits in her boudoir, weary of her life at court as a maid-of-honor to Queen Anne. She dismisses her many servants with the exception of Nancy, and is soon visited by her cousin and suitor Lord Tristan, whom she considers extremely boring. When she hears the sound of reveling voices, she learns of the Richmond Fair and leaps at the chance to masquerade as a servant girl in search of work. Harriet, Nancy, and Tristan take on the names of Martha, Julia, and Bob, respectively. They enter the fair as a sheriff reads aloud the terms of service which binds a worker to their employer for a whole year. Martha and Julia catch the eye of Lyonel and Plunkett, two young farmers in need of women to handle work around the house. The women accept their initial payment and contract, but decide to end their joke when Lyonel and Plunkett suggest they go back to the farm together. Despite this, the women are held to their contract by the sheriff and the crowd of people, and thus driven back to the farm with Lyonel and Plunkett.

Although both farmers have fallen for their new maids, they are dismayed to find that they are both terrible at housework. When Julia storms out of the room after upturning her spinning wheel, Martha and Lyonel share a tender moment together; Martha sings for Lyonel and he quickly proposes marriage. Though she laughs at his gesture, she remarks on his sincerity before they all retire for the night. That evening, Tristan finds the farm and spirits away the women in his carriage. Lyonel, distraught over the loss of his Martha, happens upon her again in the woods as she and other ladies assist Queen Anne in her hunt. Harriet feigns ignorance of having met Lyonel, and when he tries to press her back into service using the contract she signed, she calls for guards to arrest him. Before he is taken to prison, Lyonel gives Plunkett a ring to present in court. The ring identifies Lyonel as the son of the banished Earl of Derby, whose name had been restored before his death. Lyonel is released from jail, but still despairs over the way he was treated by Harriet, who had scorned him over their difference in status. With his rank and estate restored, Harriet realizes that she loves Lyonel and there is no longer social differences keeping them apart, though Lyonel is still bitter from her initial rejection. When the Richmond Fair rolls around again, Harriet and Nancy don their old servant personas and find the farmers once more. Harriet and Lyonel reconcile after he realizes that he loves her as well, ending the opera with a joyous double wedding.

Famous Musical Numbers

The most notable number in this work is “The Last Rose of Summer,” which first appears when Lyonel and Martha are alone together, leading him to propose marriage. The song is an Irish poem written by Thomas Moore which was set to a traditional melody called “The Young Man’s Dream.” The poem itself is highly famous and has received musical treatment from composers such as Beethoven, Gounod, and Britten.

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording that stars Anneliese Rothenberger, Nicolai Gedda and Brigitte Fassbaender.


Opera Wiki