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Stephen HARTKE (b.
1952) The Greater Good or The Passion of Boule de
M. Carre-Lamadon – Christopher
Count Breville – Andrew Wentzel (bass-baritone)
M. Loiseau – John David De Haan (tenor)
Mme. Carre-Lamadon – Christine Abraham (mezzo)
Countess Breville – Elaine Alvarez (soprano)
Cornudet – Seth Keeton (bass baritone)
Mme. Loiseau – Jill Gardner (soprano)
Coachman – Matthew Worth (baritone)
The Old Nun – Jeanine Thames (soprano)
The Young Nun – Katherine Calcamuggio (mezzo)
Boule de Suif (Elizabeth Rousset) – Caroline Worra (soprano)
Prussian Officer – Christian Reinert (tenor) Mme. Follenvie – Dorothy Byrne (mezzo)
M. Follenvie – Liam Moran (bass)
Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra/Stewart Robinson
rec. Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York, USA,
30 July, 3, 12, 15 August 2006. NAXOS 8.669014-15 [74.05
the printed word into opera is a tricky task. Situations
which can seem appealing to the composer and librettist can
prove awkward to translate into the new medium. A particular
problem can be the tendency to be over-wordy in the libretto.
Composer Stephen Hartke and writer Philip Littell set themselves
a particular problem with their opera ‘The Greater Good’.
It is based on Guy de Maupassant’s short story Boule de
Suif; a story in which the voice of the narrator plays
a very large role.
that I describe Philip Littell as writer rather than librettist.
The CD booklet credits the libretto to Stephen Hartke, based
on Philip Littell’s dramatic adaptation of the short story.
Maupassant tells the story of a group of people fleeing Paris
after the Franco-Prussian war. They are marooned in a small
French town because the local Prussian commandant will not
let them move on until he has had a night of bliss with one
of their number, the prostitute Boule de Suif. The travellers
spend time persuading her of her duty, providing stories
of past deeds of valour by women. When Boule de Suif finally
does her duty and the travellers move on, she is shunned
Maupassant, in the form of the narrator, is interested in
the character of the individual members of the petit bourgeoisie
as much as Boule de Suif herself. This means that the opera
is full of character parts and Boule de Suif herself is one
amongst many. This may seem attractive to a company anxious
to include members of its young singers’ scheme.
recording is based on Glimmerglass Opera’s premiere performances
of the work. The cast - some fourteen named parts - included
seven singers who were members of Glimmerglass Opera’s 2006
Young American Artists Program.
far so good! But a first listen to the opera gives rise to
three thoughts: too much text in the libretto, too much vibrato
from the singers and not enough words audible. Obviously,
as the opera develops and on further listenings, my impressions
changed. But these three points stayed at the back of my
mind and so I must address them.
is a lot of dialogue in this opera. Perhaps the text itself
is not over-long but the libretto develops naturalistically,
with just instrumental interludes. Only occasionally are
the characters permitted solos to enable us to get to know
them. One of the highlights of the performance is the scene
at the beginning of Act 2 when the three ladies, Mme Carre-Lamadon
(Christine Abraham), Countess Breville (Elaine Alvarez) and
Mme. Loiseau (Jill Gardner) have a series of interlocking
all the operas cleverness, with the ensemble scenes and the
group eating - of that, more anon - I wish that we had more
moments of stillness like this. What we have is a lot of
discussion between the principal characters - the three women
listed above, their husbands, M. Carre-Lamadon (Christopher
Burchett), Count Breville (Andrew Wentzel) and M. Loiseau
(John David De Haan), the two nuns (Janine Thames and Katherine
Calcamuggio), a political agitator (Seth Keeton) and Boule
de Suif (Caroline Worra). And this is where the issue of
vibrato comes in. Given the amount of text spoken in dialogue
and ensemble, it is essential that the vocal lines and the
text come over with clarity.
this happened in the theatre, but on this recording this
does not happen. I can’t really believe that so many young
singers have so many pronounced vibratos; perhaps they do
and if so, this is worrying. But perhaps the recording is
also to blame. Whatever the case, many of the ensembles are
occluded because of competing vibratos. Also, we just can’t
hear all the words and that matters, especially in a dialogue
opera like this.
a lot happens in Act 1. A large part of it takes place in
the coach itself. First the various members moan that they’ve
forgotten to bring any food, then Boule de Suif shares hers
with them. Finally, when they reach the inn they have a meal
together. Food, its sharing and communal eating plays a large
role in the dramaturgy. At the end, Boule de Suif’s rejection
by her fellow travellers is emphasised by their failure to
share their food with her.
be in the theatre, Act 1 works but on disc it fails to take
fire, especially given the problems detailed above. It is
only in act 2 that things happen. We get the ladies’ soliloquies
and the group story-telling in which they try to persuade
Boule de Suif to do the deed. I could have wished that Act
1 was half its length and Act 2 longer, with more stage time
given to Boule de Suif. I know that de Maupassant’s short
story deals equally with the different characters, but opera
is different. I feel that Hartke and Littell should have
been more radical.
orchestration is highly imaginative; in fact the orchestra
is almost an extra character. At times this threatens the
vocal contribution because Hartke’s vocal lines are not always
memorable, whereas his orchestration is. In one scene, when
the cast are eating soup the accompaniment is a set of tuned
soup bowls. And the penultimate scene, when the assembled
company listen to Boule de Suif and the Commandant exercising
the bed springs in the room above, is a triumph. Hartke deals
wittily and imaginatively with the conjuring of the bed-spring
sounds in the orchestra.
cast work very hard and make a convincingly well balanced
ensemble. Occasionally voices stand out, for good or for
bad. John David de Haan sounds strained in his upper register
and his voice stands out for negative reasons in the ensembles.
The old nun, Jeanine Thames, makes much of her wonderful
coloratura outburst in Act 2. Caroline Worra impresses as
Boule de Suif, giving the character flirtatiousness, pathos
and nobility. I just wish that she had been given a rather
bigger part to sing.
CD booklet includes a detailed synopsis with a track-by-track
listing so it is relatively easy to follow what is going
on, even when diction becomes occluded. The English libretto
is also available for downloading from the Naxos web-site.
title perhaps needs some explanation. De Maupassant’s story
was called simply Boule de Suif. Which could be loosely
translated as butter-ball. The heroine is so-named because
she is not only lovely, but also of ample proportions. Understandably,
perhaps, there was a reluctance to use either Boule de
Suif or ‘Butter-ball’ as the opera’s name. So it became The
Greater Good or The Passion of Boule de Suif, which seems
just a little to portentous for the work’s own good.
would be very interested to see this opera in the theatre
and would hope I could be won over. I’m afraid that this
performance, lively and enthusiastic though it is, did not
win me over. This is one of those sets which I would have
liked to have liked more.
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