The Greater Good

Photo: George Mott/Courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera

Prostitutes with hearts of gold are plentiful in opera, but Boule de Suif, the Rubenesque heroine of Stephen Hartke’s The Greater Good, is surely the noblest of them all. Recently given its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, Hartke’s first opera takes a leisurely approach to Guy de Maupassant’s classic short story, titled after its heroine, but the French writer’s typically jaundiced view of community hypocrisy is devastatingly presented in music of acerbic relish, keen character observation, and real melodic sophistication. The tale is ideally tailored for opera. Boule, one of the most in-demand prostitutes of her day despite (or perhaps because) of her ripe proportions, is trapped in a horse-drawn coach filled with stolid bourgeois citizens in flight from German troops during the Franco-Prussian War. She is haughtily snubbed by them all until it becomes clear that their only means of escape from the enemy-occupied inn where they find themselves is for Boule to sleep with the Prussian commandant. This she reluctantly agrees to do for “the greater good,” but having sacrificed much of her carefully maintained self-respect to serve the selfish purposes of her companions, Boule finds herself once again an ostracized nonperson.

Interesting moments of musical activity bustle busily in Hartke’s bubbly score, which effectively seizes on all the opportunities for lyrical expansion and delicious instrumental satire that librettist Philip Littell has provided for a composer clever enough to seize them. By the final curtain the scorned Boule has all our sympathy as she sits in the departing coach, ignored and with telltale tears in her eyes—shed more for the inhumanity of her repulsive traveling companions, one suspects, than for herself. Caroline Worra heads a beautifully integrated ensemble deftly directed by David Schweizer and knowingly conducted by Stewart Robertson. Most ingenious of all is set designer Mark Wendland’s convertible traveling coach, which expands and contracts to form a claustrophobic universe of its own.

Glimmerglass’s production of Jenufa, also new this summer, is an intimate, grittily realistic approach to Leos Janácek’s poignant rural drama that will serve as a useful contrast to the Metropolitan’s more grandiose symbolic treatment. Director Jonathan Miller may have in fact gone rather too far in his determination to show us a plain and drab collection of wretched Moravian peasants, driving the point home so forcefully that the radiant human spirit that illuminates this glowing work is in danger of being extinguished. Surely Jenufa shouldn’t be portrayed as quite such a homely Valley Girl, while her tortured foster mother, Kostelnicka, behaves more like a witch from a Grimm’s fairy tale than a guilt-ridden moral pillar of town society. Isabella Bywater’s white-trash sets underscore the point to a fault, although it was a nice touch to make a battered spinet piano the main item in Kostelnicka’s sparsely decorated parlor, a pathetic indication of her proud yearning for the better things in life.

The cast also offers compensations, especially Maria Kanyova in the title role. She may not cut an especially sympathetic figure, but her firm, clear, expressive soprano tells us all we need to know about Jenufa’s generous character. Elizabeth Byrne’s ramrod Kostelnicka would probably improve with more sympathetic direction—the terrifying Act Two curtain, after the unhinged woman murders Jenufa’s baby and imagines death himself staring accusingly at her through the window, was clumsily managed and just seemed silly. The most telling ingredient of the production is Stewart Robertson’s conducting of an opera for which he obviously holds a special affection. Under his loving care the score’s subtle instrumental colorings and arching melodic lines could hardly sound more ravishing, a rebuke to all those early Janácek critics who considered him little more than an inspired amateur.

The Greater Good
Stephen Hartke.

Leos Janacek. Glimmerglass Opera 2006 Festival, Cooperstown.

The Greater Good