Tuesday 21 May 2019

'Ulysses' and the enduring appeal of a love song

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Romantic aria: von Flotow's 'M'appari' features in Ulysses
Romantic aria: von Flotow's 'M'appari' features in Ulysses

George Hamilton

It's one of the most romantic of tenor arias. It's to be found in a comic opera that doesn't get out much any more, hence its evolution into a concert piece that all the greats have had a go at.

The opera in question is Martha, by a lesser-known German composer, Friedrich von Flotow. The song goes under two titles - 'M'appari', or in its original version, 'Ach so fromm'.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

It's a love song of course, delivered by a young farmer who's fallen for a lady way out of his league.

In keeping with the melodrama of the lyric stage, it's a tall tale we're told.

The opera has a subtitle - Richmond Market - which is where the action begins to unfold.

Bored with life at the court of the Queen of England, one of her ladies-in-waiting - Harriet Durham - is looking for a little diversion.

She and her maid decide to join some local girls on their way to a hiring fair.

In disguise, and calling themselves Martha and Julia, they're taken on by two young farmers, Plunkett and his foster-brother Lyonel.

When the women realise there's going to be hard work involved, they contrive to break their contracts, but not before the two boys have fallen in love with them.

Later on, their paths cross again, and the penny drops. This is a match unlikely to be made.

Lady Harriet snubs Lyonel. 'Ach so fromm' is his poignant lament that he's unlikely ever again to be with the object of his desire.

Of course, opera being opera, there's every chance there'll be a happy ending and that's exactly the case here.

It turns out that Lyonel is of noble blood himself, so he has a chance to get his own back, which breaks the heart of Lady Harriet. So Julia (in reality her maid Nancy) and Plunkett arrange another fair in front of the men's farmhouse, and there everything falls into place.

In the years after its premiere in Vienna in 1847, it became a popular addition to the repertoire with translations assuring success across Europe, and indeed further afield. An English version was staged in New York in 1852.

Some 70 years later, on the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, the enduring appeal of 'M'appari' becomes clear.

The author, a fan of opera in general and the tenor Enrico Caruso in particular, employs the song as a leitmotiv in his novel.

Ironically enough, von Flotow had done something similar with an Irish air, which he made use of to great effect in Martha.

It makes its first appearance when the putative charladies have set about their chores in the farmhouse, with no clue as to what they should be doing. Julia (Nancy, the maid) knocks over Plunkett's spinning wheel.

The pair of them then leave Martha (Harriet) and Lyonel alone. He confesses he's fallen in love with her, and asks her to sing him a song.

Her response is 'The Groves of Blarney' - the basis for Thomas Moore's 'The Last Rose of Summer. Martha sings it in German as 'Letzte Rose'.

Speaking of which, Martin McDonagh's Oscar-nominated film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which earned Academy Awards last year for the actors Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, opened with Renée Fleming singing 'The Last Rose of Summer'.

But that is a story for another day.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top