Cher Public

The last ruse of summer

“Ladies, this is where we turn and sell it with a look!”

“It’s an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.”* One injustice is the oblivion to which whole genres of once-popular theater pieces have been consigned. Have them out! Perform them, by all, by any, means! 

Such was my reflection Saturday night at Hunter College’s Lang Recital Hall, when attending Utopia Opera’s first performance (of four, through next Sunday) of von Flotow’s Martha, a work of 1847 that was popular around the world for a hundred years. The tuneful score was much loved back then, and it did not hurt that there were singers like Sembrich and Patti, Caruso and Gigli, who loved to sing it.

All of them sang it at the Met, though, curiously, half the Met’s more than one hundred performances of Martha took place on tour, as if New York was too sophisticated for old-fashioned claptrap but the folks on the road still cared about it.

When an opera has been loved for so long, in my experience, it falls from the repertory not because of any slightness of quality but because the popular taste has dramatically changed, as it so often does. Given by able singers with a proper sense of style, works such as Martha or Der Vampyr or Mignon or Die Lüstigen Weiber von Windsor still delight.

The current Utopia production of Martha, perhaps New York’s first since the City Opera gave it in 1990, is performed by a small, scrappy orchestra (they warm up after the overture) and a chorus light on male voices but capable of snappy footwork. It is performed in the original German, with English subtitles. That’s a good choice: there are several English translations, all execrable.

William Remmers conducted and directed. He updated the piece from the reign of Queen Anne to that of youthful Elizabeth II (which seems like ages ago), probably to save money on costumes. Scenery is minimal. The cast’s moves are Broadway-inflected, and Remmers has the skill to get them to toss a leg or cock a snook with winning precision.

The singers vary between surprisingly good and not so surprising. Flotow’s style of melody, familiar from Weber and Schumann, still gives pleasure. But, after Utopia’s exceptional Ballad of Baby Doe last spring (a much more elaborate piece, too), Martha’s opening night was a bit of a letdown.

Let us start with Lady Harriet, because she is the title character of Martha and, well, if she charms us, the opera is a hit, and if she fails to do so, even if she can sing, it will just be a collection of tunes. Companies usually give this opera if a soprano of overpowering charm would like to sing it. (At the Met’s last new production, Victoria de los Angeles—get the idea?) Utopia is doing it because fans voted for it on the Utopia web site, and this is a defective method of choosing. First, you should get a Martha; then, you tell the audience they have (democratically) chosen it. That’s the way.

Elizabeth Treat has a pretty but unremarkable voice, thin but sweet and well trained—the trill is attractive, the leaps about the scale in her final aria impressive. But she does not bring her ladyship to life. Ennui is not an attractive quality in any case, and Lady Harriet’s decision to escape boredom by pretending to be a housemaid leads Lionel to heartbreak—so we aren’t inclined to like her.

Harriet/Martha has to persuade us of her gentle, awakening heart. Miss Treat was a blank wall, staring into space, perhaps opening night jitters. “The Last Rose of Summer” should make us feel the sadness solitude. Treat warbled a sweet line and Remmers accompanied it gently, but it did not evoke tears.

Louis Riva had the charm for Lionel, the sentimental farmer who falls for the disguised lady and proclaims it in the most famous of Flotow’s tunes, “Ach, so fromm.” (“M’appari,” for Caruso fans, but Riva sang in German.) Riva has an attractive tone; too, he sings and acts with ardent resolve. But his voice is light, even for this role, and would be lost in a full-sized theater. Too, though I understand the director’s wish to avoid the cliché of having singers stand still to deliver an aria as if at an audition, sitting on a box and then rising at the stretta looks just as artificial.

The singers of the secondary, comic roles, Nancy and Plunkett, were far more appealing, and their romance was more exciting, too. (Nowadays, we prefer to identify with earthy, humorous lovers rather than the pallid, poetic romantic icons of the romantic era.) Plunkett, the solid yeoman farmer, was Nick Miller, likeably beefy even when knitting, whose flexible baritone had an enjoyable solidity.

But the voice and personality that stood out most belonged to Caroline Tye, a true contralto, in the role of Nancy/Julia, with the sort of cool stare that communicates everything she is thinking and a sharp aside as well. Think of Bea Arthur or Nancy Walker, also excellent gravel-voiced singers. Tye was always worth watching whatever nonsense the plot obliged her to concoct, and always worth hearing even when it was only a predictable harmony.

Remmers, in his director’s hat, spiced up the Nancy-Plunkett duet—they don’t strip, mind you; they begin to strip each other—while the voices unaffectedly continued. I’m not sure if Tye’s voice is big enough for a career, but she’s so winning a performer that I look forward to her further efforts. (A Phoebe Merrill, maybe—or Tessa.)

The comic role of Lady Harriet’s amorous cousin, Sir Tristan, was performed by Roman Laba, who has a pleasant dark voice and enjoys playing ridiculous. But one can be heterosexual and ridiculous, you know; Laba did not quite play that. Anyway, he knows how to twirl an umbrella. The chorus sounded like more singers than they were and a more gender balanced group than they were. Good. And everyone present seemed surprised what a pleasure the score was, and how pleasant to hear it performed unselfconsciously. But why should we be? It was a hit for a hundred years, you know.

* The Mikado, consoling his cast for their upcoming execution.

  • Camille

    “Utopia is doing it because fans voted for it on the Utopia web site, and this is a defective method of choosing.”

    Sez YOU!! A certainly EFFECTIVE way of getting what one wants, however!! Better a slightly imperfect MARFA than no MARFA at all!!! Who among the under sixty set has heard or seen it at all, outside maybe Bad Kissengen or thereabouts.

    I am SO happy the great little troupe of Opera Utopia has deigned to perform this unjustly neglected delight, and look forward to seeing it this coming weekend! In bocca al lupo a tutti!

  • Nelly della Vittoria

    Caroline Tye was also very good as Madame de la Haltière two seasons ago. Can one tell about voices from that space? It’s very small, to be sure, but muffling.

    The tuneful score was much loved back then, and it did not hurt that there were singers like Sembrich and Patti, Caruso and Gigli, who loved to sing it.

    Dissenting of Tunbridge Wells: I have never heard a recording of Sembrich that wasn’t a little bit dreadful, and can only guess doubtfully (because I imagine I listen with a sympathetic imagination) that she was ill-served by the technology.

    • Camille

      No, in my opinion one cannot tell all that much about vocal quality because of the muffler, and WHO CARES???? It’s FUN!

  • Nelly della Vittoria

    Well I’m going to do my best to get to it. Only don’t tell George Eliot on me please, or she’ll be scornful.

    “Mr. Casaubon is not fond of the piano, and I am very glad he is not,” said Dorothea, whose slight regard for domestic music and feminine fine art must be forgiven her, considering the small tinkling and smearing in which they chiefly consisted at that dark period. She smiled and looked up at her betrothed with grateful eyes. If he had always been asking her to play the “Last Rose of Summer,” she would have required much resignation.

    • Camille

      I never did finish reading my beautiful leather-bound, embossed volumn but cheated by watching a poor filmed version of it instead. My leather-bound volume reproaches me daily from its place of honour on the bookcase. Such is the way of the traviata.

      Nell, I’ll be the bent old biddy with a Zabar’s bag filled with opera scores, most likely at the Sunday performance, should you make it and I do hope you do. Simone will be nowhere in sight.

      • Nelly della Vittoria

        I’ll be at the Sunday performance! Friend and I will be the, um, Indian ones. If you see a face on which is recorded the ongoing tale of youth burnt up on the altar-flame of small worries, that is my face.

        Down with filmed versions, the scourge of nineteenth-century fiction!

        • Camille

          Filmed versions are good for old ladies with bad eyesight and a lack of patience for victorian word salads, alas!

          Alas and alack!!!! My best intentions have gone off astray wheels to Hella, for, because of my spouse’s Sunday afternoon engagement I shall be constrained to attend MARFA on Saturday night. Thereby denying our ships mutual crossing in the dark of the night, (or the light of afternoon, either), Nelly Della darling, and methinks Imma gonna cry….! This may change again, but thus far it has been such a back and forth it’s been an exercise in hysteria and I don’t know WOT will finally occur.

          SOB!

          • Nelly della Vittoria

            Alack-a-day!

            • Keeps the doctor away. Perhaps.

            • Camille

              Nelly della —--

              We have just returned from Martha and I can guarantee you, a good time was had by all!!

              It’s not the Metropolitan but then there are great recompenses in this company with a great big heart and soul. Unlike at the Met, I did not have to start training my attention exclusively to the orchestra, nor seek out my safe place, as it was all good fun. I hope you will enjoy yourself and your afternoon with Lady Harriet AKA Martha!!

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              Oh I AM glad!
              More on this tomorrow after the show…

    • Tinkling and smearing. Love it.

      • Camille

        oh dear. Nelly’s gonna get you for that one NPW. Good thing you’re both separated by an ocean, thou mighty monster.

        • I was just enjoying Mr Eliot’s choice of words.

          • Camille

            NPW, I’m so glad you reminded me of the Jérusalem thing, and, as I kind of felt guilty you went to so much trouble and had additionally not realized that it was VIDEO, so therefore rendering a score not strictly necessary should I even be able to ‘score’ one. SO, I managed to get through about half of it last night and will finish up the rest tonight. It doesn’t seem to be his best effort, but then, I can’t remember Lombardi well enough to be able to contrast. Nevertheless, I appreciate knowing of this VIDEO, precious relique that it is, as I need to bone up on it, as it were. La Gasdia looks the very PICTURE of a pre-Raphaelite version of a mediaeval maiden! Just perfect and so innocent appearing! I didn’t understand much but who cares? Mr. Luchetti, on the other hand, had such a bright and forward timbre to his voice that it actually lent itself very well indeed to French. Carroli was mush mouthed but with an imposing sound, so it was, after all, worth the effort. Must say how static it all appears to my jaded old eyes. How much change hath Regie Wrought!

            Mr. Eliot’s choice of words are indeed, edifying.

            Grand Merci!

            • Well even in its day -- I was there -- it wasn’t considered much of a production. It even raised the odd laugh, which is not a good thing really is it?

            • Camille

              Well, one does need YEARS to read Ms Eliot.

              I know what you mean and rue the fact my eyesight and concentration can no longer hack big onslaughts into literary flights. Short stories are where it’s at now.

            • Hm. I’m now slogging through Yury Tynyanov’s The Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar (or Death And Diplomacy In Persia, as it was apparently once translated into English. I’m reading it in French). Not a short story!

            • Camille

              You’re a braver man than I.

              I’m currently slogging through the Sephora website for sale items on their egregiously overpriced items. The “reviews” of such are mindblowingly idiotic. Everytime I read one — there goes another five I.Q. points.

              On the other hand, I just bought Death in Venice, at the Neue Gallerie, in English, as I’d realised that I’d only read it in italiano anout a million years ago and wondered what I’d missed.

              An’s Werk!

            • The last Britten opera I saw. He seems to be well out of fashion in France.

              Actually, the Tynyanov’s very entertaining, though Russia’s a country I’ve barely set foot in (St Petersburg only) so I’m not on familiar territory.

            • Camille

              Although it was most staunchly and stoutly defended by no less than the late and great mrsjc, and I’ve listened through it in most-determinedly grim and dutiful fashion at least thrice--I just cannot hack it as opera, sorry to be a philistine. Must now go back to seducing Samson, with no apologies for loving Saint-Saëns, either.

            • Heheh, one of my favourite Brittens.

              You’re right not to apologise. Proserpine is 18 inches from my nose as I type -- but I admit I’m in fact listening to Turkish pop radio.

            • Camille

              Last night we saw an hysterical Mario Bava film “Hercules in the Haunted World” which featured a Persephone, as the daughter of Pluto, and in love with Theseus! Deianira (however it is spelled in Fransch) was saved from a vampiric Christopher Lee! She is also the subject of a Saint-Saëns opera--I forget now where I saw a score and it rather interested me but with my bad goût, well now, it just would! I love Camille S-S! What a fab long life and what a genius!

            • Proserpine is one of the many rare works the Palazzetto Bru-Zane has been shooting out like peas from a pea-shooter, most of them involving Véronique Gens. I can’t keep up…

            • Camille

              Yes, I’m very happy about this movement as it’s high time the French preserve that which is theirs w/o feeling inferior that it is not Wagner!

              Hoping La Gens keeps up with it all as she is no longer a spring chicken. I think that Dante was posted online and I’ve listened to some of it: good clean Dantean fun = Beatrice über Alles!

            • fletcher

              I’m a professed Saint-Saëns fanatic and I found that Proserpine hopelessly dull. Waiting patiently for Etienne Marcel and Ascanio now, which, based on what I’ve read and heard, are much better (but not as good as Henry VIII…)

            • Camille

              Étienne=Marcel has an interesting cast of characters. There is an aria excerpt I have seen in some old album, which didn’t look all that intriguing, but! Régine Crespin recorded that fun little song from Ascanio, if you haven’t already heard it. Now I really will have to go seek out Proserpine!

            • Even if Proserpine or other works by Saint-Saëns or other composers turn out to be as dull as ditchwater, I think it’s useful for us to be able to build up a picture of operatic life at the time. I wasn’t hugely convinced by Le Timbre d’Argent in Paris last season, though in that case I seemed to admire the music more than many people and the production less.

              But I’m no doubt preaching to the converted here. And of course, at least some of these works turn out really to have been unjustly neglected.

            • It seems the French magazine Classica has chosen the Bru Zane issue of Méhul’s Uthal (!) as one of its top recordings of the year for 2017. WIth Karine Deshayes, Yann Beuron and Les Talens Lyriques under Rousset. Another beautifully produced edition, presented as a hardback book and no doubt with the usual interesting essays inside.

            • Interestingly, a score with no violins.

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xk0ka1hQUVo

            • Camille

              ohé, M. NPW!!!

              I spent a good deal of time yesterday morning reading up on this opera and M. Méhul, and I must say I am aghast at my own lack of application to his music up to now —-- one of many who has had an asterisk aside their name — and as a porto-romanticist, he is right up my allée and much indebted to you for brining him up.

              Yes, my love Hector wrote quite a bit on his usage of the violas in his famous Treatise.

              Ciao for now must go back to ancient Alexandria.

            • I’ve ordered the “CD-Book”.

            • Camille

              Let me hear about it, s’il te plaît!

            • These editions are very handsome, for a start, with their hard covers, lightly embossed and gilded, and include interesting scholarly essays.

              Did you know the Palazzetto also publishes scores?

              http://www.bru-zane.com/en/edizioni-e-dischi/partiture/

            • Camille

              No I did NOT and now I am in in trouble with my holy vow to buy scores no more! I have revamped mon mari’s old Mac and am planning a massive IMSLP importation—mais—zut alors!

              You know,
              I asked my mari if he had listened to the overture of Uthal and he responded “Oui” and “meh”. However—he reminded me that just recently we’d heard inenof his symphonies over the radio which reminded us both of Beethoven—-ballet Beethoven, that is! So, I will have to investigate further as we both sort of enjoyed his shmphony. The operas——je n’en sais rien du tout!

  • Camille

    Nelly Della Vicki Barcelona!!
    They may be hoarse tomorrow! They sang their hearts out tonite so just be kind!! Ciao!

    • Nelly della Vittoria

      Oh, who would inhabit / This bleak world alone?

      I would, apparently, for I ended up going solo. Anyway, it was very lovely, and life-affirming, as I expected it would be

      • William Remmers

        Thanks be to both of you for coming to another one of our shows. I’m glad you enjoyed it as we have.

        • Nelly della Vittoria

          Maestro Remmers! Chapeau and hip-hip!

        • Camille

          Mr Remmers!

          We love your unique and considerable efforts and will be back at your next staging --that of the Sondheim work Passion, appropriately enough in the passionate early spring.

          Now then—what is this all about getting a new venue outside Lang Recital Hall at Hunter College--one to afford space for a 33 pc. Orchestra rather than your usual neat and sweet petite troupe? Is there anyone OUT THERE who could help to direct the Utopia Opera to such a space (in order they not only present Thea Musgrave’s opera A woman called Moses but also to pay festive due to her ninetieth birthday), all of which a noble and worthy effort.

          C’mon peoples of parterria! Contact the Utopia Opera and its dauntless maestro, William Remmers, with any ideas or directions on an appropriate venue!!

      • Camille

        Oh ma belle Nell!!!!

        Me SO sowry we didn’t even manage to be ships passing in the dark, allein! Weh mir Allein! Ganz allein!

        It was a very cheery, chirruping show and the sweet uplift of the end was ALL!

        until next time or — until the cows come home--!

        Avec mes sincères bisous—
        Camille Moke de Beauchamps