Notes and Editorial Reviews
Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant and premiered at the Glimmerglass Opera (where this was recorded) in 2006, Stephen Hartke's The Greater Good is an effective piece of musical storytelling. It takes place during the Franco-Prussian War and concerns a group of arrogant French bourgeois, a political agitator, and a pair of nuns who 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) who shares her past and her food with the others. When it looks as if the only way the 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 uses the orchestra to paint situations--ostinatos give us 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. It's a witty and entertaining if not memorable score; those looking for tunes will be disappointed.
The vocal lines are mostly exclamatory, save for a remarkable burst of coloratura from the Old Nun in Act 2, in which she delivers a lecture on duty. There is almost too much detail in the text (Hartke wrote the libretto from Philip Littell's adaptation of de Maupassant's story), particularly given that Naxos fails to supply a libretto and words only occasionally can be discerned. (A superb track-by-track summary is included--and there are more than 40 tracks on each CD--but we still lose a great deal.) In the final analysis, I'm not convinced that this is a particularly good subject for an opera.
The cast is excellent, with Caroline Worra shining as Boule, expressing the character's complexity well. Tenor John David De Haan and soprano Jill Gardner are good as the nasty L'Oiseaus, the very picture of middle-class awful people, and the rest of the ensemble cast is equally fine, with Jeanine Thames as the Old Nun a particularly vivid portrayal. Stewart Robinson's leadership is all we might ask. The opera's appeal will be a matter of taste; the performance can't be faulted.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com