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.