FLOTOW Martha (Weigle)
It’s a strange libretto, like a mixture of Lessing and early French light opera. Its political correctness – in ‘the war of the sexes’, as it used to be called – doesn’t improve with age. Bored upper-class girls go men-hunting and sell themselves into domestic service in disguise at a fair in quaint old working-class northern England. Cue standby comic tropes: they’re aristos so they can’t do manual work but the male leads (also hunting on the sly) fall in love with them anyway. Main girl not quite sure of her wooer’s background (really so common?) but, abracadabra, he turns out to be an aristo anyway.
All this was based on a French ballet and, at its weaker moments, the piece feels like words fitted to the speech bubbles above pictures. Yet Friedrich von Flotow (1812 83), north German but trained in Paris, manages to make a case for the drama by organising his standard but pleasing musical effects economically and well.
There are fast, quiet choruses setting deliberately nonsense rhymes – much in the spirit of Weber’s Freischütz peasants or Wagner’s Holländer spinning girls, who anticipated Flotow’s by just four years. There’s enough tricky coloratura in Lady Harriet Durham’s part to keep the role on a soprano’s bucket list – it was on Erna Berger’s, Victoria de los Angeles’s and Anneliese Rothenberger’s, and they all recorded it. The tenor, Lyonel, has a distinctive ‘hit’ number, Act 3’s ‘Ach so fromm, ach so traut’ which, as ‘M’appari’, helped spawn the Italian version which nearly displaced the German and was a special number for Caruso at the Met.
There’s little doubt that this is a spankingly good performance, another success for the investigative repertoire of Bernd Loebe’s Oper Frankfurt. To be super-fussy, Weigle’s and his players’ enthusiasm is occasionally a little heavy-handed – some historically informed early 19th-century lightness wouldn’t go amiss. And I don’t think we need the over-generous slab of noisy curtain-call applause at the end which bullies our own reaction. But otherwise it’s a worthy and exciting release all round.
The cast seems a just mixture of novelty and experience, with Bengtsson’s note-spinning both pure and dramatically apt, and Rea managing the non-part of Tristan (the girls’ chum but obviously no-hope lover) with aplomb. Glueckert’s tenor is both attractive to hear and emotionally comprehensible. The chorus (quite a lot to do for them) have been carefully prepared and balanced and evidently enjoy themselves. Oehms’s recording is warm, clear and natural: if you want to investigate this undemanding listen, I don’t think now you need to go any further back in sonic time.