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Stephen HARTKE (b. 1952)
The Greater Good or The Passion of Boule de Suif [142.31]
M. Carre-Lamadon – Christopher Burchett (baritone)
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 + 68.26]

Translating 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.
Note 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.
De 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 by them.
De 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.
This 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.
So 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.
There 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 reveries.
For 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.
Perhaps 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.
Not 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.
May 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.

Hartke’s 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
I 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.
Robert Hugill

see also review by Carla Rees

Naxos American Classics page 


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