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Hartke's The Greater Good

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Stephen Hartke, The Greater Good (world premiere), Glimmerglass Opera
(released June 26, 2007)
Glimmerglass Opera premiered Stephen Hartke's opera The Greater Good, or the Passion of Boule de Suif last summer, and the reviews were generally quite positive. Although I would like to hear every new opera that is premiered around the world, it is just not possible, of course. Not to harp too much on the same string, but one excellent use of the public airwaves, supposedly reserved for cultural enrichment, would be to show operatic premieres on public television or broadcast them on public radio. As lamented regularly by Ionarts, though this is true in other countries, it is not the case in our own. So Naxos has done all of fans of contemporary American opera a great service in releasing this live recording of The Greater Good, compiled from four different dates in Cooperstown last July and August. The recording was made possible, according to the liner notes, by grants from the International Music and Art Foundation and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music. Let us hope that more new operas can reach a larger audience in the same way.

It is hard to judge whether a new opera will be worth the cost of recording and dissemination, particularly if it is the composer's maiden attempt in the genre, as it was in this case. Having spent some time listening to this opera, both analytically and just as diverting pleasure, and having studied the libretto (generously available online from Naxos as a .PDF file), it is my opinion that the gamble has paid off and then some. The literary source of the libretto, first adapted as a play by Philip Littell and then in operatic form by the composer, is a short story by Guy de Maupassant, an author whom more composers should consider for musical setting. Boule de Suif (also available in English translation) is a biting social commentary about the divide between rich and poor, in the guise of a comic travel story with the clearly etched and economic characterization at which Maupassant excelled.

A group of wealthy aristocrats and bourgeoisie share a tense carriage ride in the aftermath of the Prussian occupation of Paris in 1871. They are happy to accept the generous offer of food from Boule de Suif, a low-born and full-figured prostitute with a heart of gold, in the first part of the trip. Later, they have no guilt about not only not returning the favor but of pushing the poor woman into the bed of a German officer, because they are in a hurry to be released from the place where they stopped. Although never mentioned in the opera, the smoldering conflict between classes that erupted in the Commune de Paris, the short-lived French experiment with the theories of Marx, is clearly in the background (the Commune was born about a month after the action depicted in the opera). The communist government was finally ended when its leaders were all shot in the head against a wall in the cemetery of Père-Lachaise.

As conceived by Harke, this is an ensemble opera, revolving around the passengers in the carriage as a group. Each one is characterized musically, as the conductor, Stewart Robertson, remarks in the liner notes. Hartke's strength is not particularly in vocal writing, although the Old Nun has a moment of coloratura abandon in her unforgettable Act II aria about her service as a nurse in wartime. It is the orchestra that carries most of the weight of the characterization in this opera, which lays bare Hartke's approach to opera as a composer primarily of instrumental music. The colors and variety of sounds in the fabric of the score are extraordinary. The cast (some of whom were members of the Glimmerglass Opera's Young American Artists program) is uniformly fine, with the exception of tenor John David de Haan, who is overshadowed slightly by the demands of the role of Monsieur Loiseau and tends slightly toward a shouting sound at times. For a very good performance of a worthy new opera, the Naxos price for this 2-CD set seems like a steal.

Naxos 8.669014-15

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