“Martha,” or “The Market at Richmond,” a comic opera in four acts with music by Friedrich von Flotow and libretto by St. George and Friedrich, was first presented at Vienna, Nov. 25, 1847. It is an elaboration of ” Lady Henrietta, or the Servant of Greenwich; ” a ballet-pantomime, with text by St. George and music by Flotow, Burgmuller and Deldevez, which was suggested by an actual incident and was presented in Paris in 1844.
Lady Henrietta Durham, disguised as Martha, a peasant maid. Nancy, her attendant, disguised as Julia. Lionel, Plunkett, two young farmers. Lord Tristan, an elderly cousin of Lady Henrietta. Courtiers, pages, hunters, farmers, servants.
The scene of the opera is laid in England and the time is set variously, in the German, French and Italian versions, although usually the period is that of Queen Anne. The story concerns the lark of a young woman who, like many before and since her time, has for the moment grown tired of being a great lady. The lark, it may be added, has momentous consequences. The heroine is Lady Henrietta, who with her companion Nancy, disguise themselves as servant-maids and, calling themselves Martha and Julia, go to the fair at Richmond, accompanied by Henrietta’s cousin and admirer, Sir Tristan, who it is scarcely necessary to state does not lend his approval to the escapade. To the fair come also Plunkett, a squire, and Lionel, his foster-brother, whose appearance and bearing for one of his station are unaccountably distinguished. The fair combines the features of an employment agency with its other attractions and ” Martha ” and ” Julia ” join the peasants who are there to secure positions. On account of their beauty, they experience little difficulty in being hired and before they realize it the sheriff has bound them to Plunkett and Lionel for a year’s service, the contract being clinched with the payment of earnest-money by the men.
The adventure is becoming rather serious to the girls, who are carried off by their new masters under the very nose and against the protestations of the horrified ” John,” as Sir Tristan has called himself. They find themselves at the farmhouse and the thrifty Plunkett sets them at once to work. But they do not even know how to spin. Their employers display patience really wonderful under the circumstances and set to work to show them. Plunkett seems to enjoy the office of instructor to the pretty Julia and, when she throws over her wheel and runs away in a pet, he follows her. This leaves Martha alone with Lionel, who is already head over ears in love with her, and is quite ready to confess it. She finds him much to her liking in every way except station. However, she will only laugh, while he is in deep despair. Finally, the maids are directed to their sleeping apartment from which, aided by Sir Tristan, who has followed them, they escape and are carried away in his coach.
The third act takes place at a court hunt and Lionel and Plunkett recognize their runaway servants among the ladies. Plunkett tries to seize Nancy but is prevented. Lionel snatches an interview with Lady Henrietta, whose image he has not been able to erase from his heart. While miserable at the apparent hopelessness of his suit, he finally thinks of a ring in his possession, which he has been told to present to the queen if ever in trouble, and which he hopes may prove a clue to his parentage, of which, by the way, he is ignorant. It is conveyed to the queen for him and the jewel proves indisputably that he is the heir to the late Earl of Derby who has left a rich estate.
The last act is devoted to the settlement of matters to everybody’s satisfaction. Lady Henrietta, who has long been in love with Lionel, tries to make amends for past coyness, while Plunkett triumphantly carries off Nancy.
“Martha ” is one of the most popular of all light operas and its manifold presentations have but increased the favor it always has enjoyed. Nearly all the numbers in “Martha” have for years been household favorites and to name them would be to list nearly every solo and ensemble in the score. High in especial favor, however, stand the familiar ballad, “‘Tis the last rose of Summer,” which Flotow interpolated in the scene preceding Lionel’s love-avowal to Martha ; the captivating ” Spinning Wheel Quartet,” a number which for merriment and taking melodiousness has few equals ; the beautiful ” Good-Night ” quartet; Plunkett’s drinking song in praise of porter; Lionel’s universally known romanza, “Like a Dream Bright and Fair ” (” M’ appari “) ; the soprano solo, ” Here, at least, in tranquil silence” and the concerted finale of the second act.