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Stephen HARTKE (b. 1952)
The Greater Good or The Passion of Boule de Suif (2006) [2:22:31]
Christopher Burchett (baritone) – M. Carré-Lamadon
Andrew Wentzel (bass-baritone) – Count Bréville
John David De Haan (tenor) – M. Loiseau
Christine Abraham (mezzo) – Mme. Carré-Lamadon
Elaine Alvarez (soprano) – Countess Bréville
Seth Keeton (bass-baritone) – Cornudet
Jill Gardner (soprano) – Mme Loiseau
Matthew Worth (baritone) – Coachman
Janine Thames (soprano) – The Old Nun
Katherine Calcamuggio (mezzo) - The Young Nun
Caroline Worra (soprano) – Elisabeth Rousset, also known as Boule de Suif
Christian Reinert (tenor) – A Prussian Officer
Dorothy Byrne (mezzo) – Mme. Follenvie
Liam Moran (bass) – M. Follenvie
Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra/Stewart Robertson
rec. Cooperstown, New York July/August 2006
NAXOS AMERICAN OPERA CLASSICS 8.669014-15 [74:05 + 68:26] 


This recording features the first full-length opera by American composer Stephen Hartke. Commissioned by Glimmerglass Opera, and funded by Meet the Composer, the work is based upon Guy de Maupassant’s famous short story, Boule de Suif (roughly translated to mean ball of suet). The libretto is by Phillip Littell. Set in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, the story tells of travelling companions escaping the town of Rouen in a stagecoach. The travellers comprise ten people of differing backgrounds, including three married couples, two nuns and the notorious prostitute, Boule de Suif. The party is detained after their first overnight stop and not allowed to continue on its journey until Boule de Suif agrees to sleep with the German military officer. She initially refuses, but after two days of cajoling from her fellow travellers, she finally relents. They continue their journey and treat her with contempt, refusing to share their food with her. The story ends with one of the travellers mocking her by whistling the Marseillaise while she cries at her forced loss of decorum and perceived betrayal of her nation.

The first Act is set almost entirely in a stagecoach and serves to focus on character relationships. As is typical of Maupassant, the story draws in the audience and allows a certain amount of empathy with its characters, before events unravel and cause thought-provoking consequences. It is perhaps unusual that such a short story could become an opera of almost two and a half hours in duration, but it was constantly engaging and the music allowed the plot to unfold at a natural pace. 

The performance on this CD is consistently good from singers and orchestra alike. There are some beautiful moments and I found the work captivating from start to finish. The delivery is excellent and always convincing. Hartke’s musical language is contemporary but at times romantic in its expression. His style is individual; there are resonances of Stravinsky and Bernstein but without any hint of artificiality or pastiche. At times dark and menacing, the harmonies transport the listener into a post-war environment, with an underlying feeling of despair. Moments of brilliance stand out and add humour and personality to the characters. In summary, this is a charming work which deserves to be heard.

Carla Rees


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