The libretto to Martha is by W. Friedrich, the pen name of Friedrich Wilhelm Riese (?1805-1879), a prolific German playwright. Friedrich had written a libretto on the same theme in 1845-1846 for Eduard Stiegmann's Lady Harriet. The Martha project was set in motion by a commission from the Vienna Court Opera, which prompted Flotow to expand his ballet, Lady Harriette, ou La Servante de Greenwich (1844), into an opera. Martha, oder Der Markt zu Richmond premiered in Vienna, at the Kärntnertortheater, on November 25, 1847. It is Flotow's most popular opera and remains so to this day, staged regularly in opera houses throughout the world.
The ingredients of Martha's popular success are not difficult to identify. One important element is certainly that Flotow's Martha was the first German comic opera to abandon spoken dialogue and employ continuous music. This serves to heighten the effect of the excellent libretto with its clever couplets and tightly organized tale. There are, of course, clearly defined musical numbers, which allow for audience applause after particularly stirring arias and ensembles.
The plot of Flotow's Martha is conventional and accessible. Two young men seek two young women, find them, lose them, and are reunited with them at the end. Along the way there are disguises and mistaken identities, bucolic settings, crowd scenes, royal splendor, and sincere, deep emotions from the principal characters. In its plot, Martha is reminiscent of Mozart's Così fan tutte; in its light-hearted score, dramatic pace and situations, as well as its happy ending, it looks ahead to operetta. Lyonel's lyric tenor solos soar relentlessly while Sir Tristan's buffo bass part forms a Falstaff-like foil to the serious situations. As one might expect, the couples come together according to both social standing and voice part. The noble Lady Harriet, who poses as Martha, is the archetypal French coloratura soprano and ends up with Lyonel, who in the final act learns of his nobility, which explains his high, lyric tenor material. Plumkett, a farmer and bass, hitches up with Nancy, Lady Harriet's waiting maid and a mezzo-soprano.
There are numerous highlights in Martha, including Lady Harriet's "Letzte Rose," in the second act, which is the Irish folk song, The Last Rose of Summer, as published by Thomas Moore in his Irish Melodies of 1813. Motives from the song make up the material of the powerful quintet, "Mag der Himmel euch vergeben" (May heaven forgive you), which closes the third act. This detail is only one of many examples of Flotow's desire to unify his score melodically, including the several, referential repetitions of the "Letzte Rose" theme in the opera. Plumkett's drinking song early in Act III, "Könnt ihr ergründen" (Can you explain), is surpassed only by Lyonel's "Ach, so fromm" (Ah, so gentle), a show-stopper and favorite recital piece.