Stephen Hartke's The Greater Good was commissioned by Glimmerglass Opera, and is a strikingly original contribution to the operatic repertory. Based on an iconic short story by Maupassant set during the immediate aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, The
Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, Stephen Hartke's The Greater Good
is an effective piece of musical storytelling. Against the background of the Franco-Prussian War a group of arrogant French bourgeois, a political agitator and a pair of nuns are traveling by coach to escape the Germans. Among them is Boule de Suif (literally, "Butterball" or, more appallingly, "ball of lard"), a generously built prostitute. Trapped in the coach and then in a German-occupied inn, Boule turns out to be a sensitive, generous woman (yes, a prostitute with a heart of gold). When it looks as if the only way they group will escape is if Boule sleeps with the Prussian Commandant, she does so for "the greater good" despite her hatred of the Germans. Rather than being grateful, her dreadful coach-mates judge her and ostracize her. It's a nasty satire of petit bourgeois shallowness and hypocrisy and a good story.
Hartke's music is colorful and his orchestration paints situations we hear the rocking of the coach, strings yawn out of boredom or exhaustion, the harps tinkle when it snows. He uses the light clanging of spoons when the group finally gets to eat at the Inn and, when Boule is doing her duty with the Prussian officer, we hear the creaking of bedsprings. The vocal lines are more exclamatory than melodic. The cast, led by Caroline Worra's Boule, is uniformly excellent. This is an interesting piece, worth hearing more than once. If only Naxos had supplied a libretto the track-by-track synopsis is good, but much of the text gets lost. --Robert Levine