met all demands: Worra in The Greater Good.
By B.A. Nilsson
Opera, Cooperstown, Aug. 3
Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Boule de Suif” opens, the
city of Rouen is crawling with Prussian soldiers, an oppressive
occupying force whose presence informs the rest of the tale.
In Stephen Hartke’s new opera, faithfully drawn from this
story, that occupying force is never seen but is constantly
felt in the music.
It’s a piece that begins with mystery: a nearly bare stage,
blurred by a scrim, continuous snowfall and a Sibelius-like
sound in the score emphasizing the winter chill, 10 huddled
travelers making small-talk. And it ends reminiscently, cyclically,
with nine of those 10 ironically untransformed by their experiences.
This was an ambitious commission from a company accustomed
to commissions, and the opera’s creation happened more slowly
than expected—so slowly, in fact, that the musicians didn’t
see some of the score until the first rehearsal. And it’s
difficult, difficult stuff.
But Hartke’s not known for writing easy. Furthermore, it’s
not, as he himself would put it, an “arioso” piece. The dramatic
peaks are otherwise shaped, relying on musical textures that
mix the lyric sensitivity of Barber and Stravinsky’s percussive
angularity—with some syncopated tropes from Bernstein thrown
in. (I even picked up a quote from Candide.)
The text, by Philip Littell, has a hard-to-achieve transparency,
slipping into verse when emotions need heightening, making
poetry even out of small-talk moments. He’s able to turn a
small moment in the story—when the Prussian solders are decried
for their diet of “pork and potatoes”—into a big, hilarious
moment, relying on the skillful repetition of those three
words for much of the effect (and giving mezzo Dorothy Byrne,
as an innkeeper’s wife, a wonderful, well-sung scene).
Much of the story takes place in a carriage, which set de
signer Mark Wendland presented as an oversized, skeletal,
jail-like thing. You know it will break open at some point,
but Wendland didn’t take the easy way. An inner unit slips
downstage, and even then only breaks apart gradually, each
change of angle heightening an intensifying set of events.
Six of the passengers are aristocrats (or aristocrats manqué).
Two are nuns; one, a fiery but ineffective patriot. The tenth
is a courtesan, nicknamed “Boule de Suif” because of the “embonpoint
unusual for her age.” Played by soprano Caroline Worra in
a beautifully designed fat suit (credit to David Zinn, whose
work throughout the piece was magnificent), this is a character
of rich complexity, and a role with extraordinary musical
demands. You may leave the opera with a silent picture of
Worra’s face framed in the cell of her carriage seat, but
be assured she was working hard all night.
The roguish M. Loiseau (tenor John David DeHaan), one of the
six, has some of the most dynamic moments, played (and sung)
with virtuosic conviction. And it’s up to DeHaan to pull off
the first act curtain, a scene not in the story that nevertheless
foreshadows the finish of the piece. He does so superbly.
However off-putting the score may seem to Puccini-trained
ears, its effect is undeniable. Moods are established, enhanced,
slyly shifted, transformed. Set pieces within the scenes sparkle,
most dramatically that of the Old Nun (soprano Jeanine Thames),
who, after uttering nothing but murmured prayer for most of
the piece, bursts forth in the second act with a wildly melismatic
declamation that earned her the night’s only applause interruption.
Mezzo Christine Abraham, as Mme. Carre-Lamadon, deftly embodied
(and sang) one of the piece’s pivotal moments, showing the
hypocrisy of the would-be nobles; as the Count of Breville,
bass- baritone Andrew Wenzel established a credible voice
of reason that soon turns against the beleaguered prostitute.
By the time the carriage trip resumes and the snow falls again,
we’ve spent a (psychologically) harrowing few days at a country
inn. The music, returning to earlier motifs, nevertheless
has changed; we, the audience, are similarly affected. The
gentle, mournful ending thus packs a quiet wallop, a devastating
finish to a brilliant piece.
Stewart Robinson conducted the virtuoso orchestra in this
horribly difficult work. Stage director David Schweizer deftly
kept the action transparent. It’s a must-see piece that is
assured a future life at least in broadcast and compact disc
release, but it also advances the cause of opera as the most
effective of dramatic arts.
and Color (Mozart Excepted)
Performing Arts Center, Aug. 10
Sarah Chang is very popular with Saratoga audiences, who have
followed the career of the 26-year-old violin virtuoso for
many years. As has become usual when she’s in town to play
with the Philadelphia Orchestra, she also performed with a
smaller ensemble as part of the Chamber Music Festival.
So it’s no surprise that she merited a standing ovation after
tearing through a passionate performance of the Violin
Concerto No. 1 by Max Bruch. It’s a violin warhorse, festooned
with double stops and boasting one of the loveliest slow movements
in the repertory. The opening—a low-toned throb followed by
a three-note descending figure—was slow enough to provoke
the fear that the entire first movement might be too deliberate,
but when the first theme broke forth the piece took off and
Chang was in her fiery glory. She couldn’t seem to get enough
of the piece—literally, in fact, as she even played along
with the orchestral passage that leads to the bridge to the
And it was in that adagio that she revealed the depth and
maturity of her playing. The long line of the main theme gives
way to smaller fragments reminiscent of the first movement’s
theme, and soloist and orchestra travel an intertwining path
of great dynamic contrast throughout. There are such challenges
as a forte passage marked tranquillo, and the transition,
during the final eight bars, from fortissimo to pianissimo.
All of which primed us well for the wizardry of the finale,
in which the frantic chords and arpeggios never stopped.
Although the Bruch concerto is closer in time to Debussy than
to Mozart, its orchestral textures are more in line with the
latter. Mozart’s Symphony No. 25, the “Haffner,” opened
the concert in a fairly bloodless reading. I grew up listening
to the piece as recorded by conductors like Reiner and Toscanini,
who used large orchestras, but who also coaxed much more energy
from the piece.
Debussy’s Iberia pays a three-movement tribute to that
peninsula’s sights and sounds. It’s also a festival of orchestral
color, with one layer of effective instrumental combination
after another washing over you. Conductor Charles Dutoit is
a master at imparting these colors, and made a glorious tour
of this work.
Likewise with Ravel’s La Valse, the concert closer.
It’s a brief but meaningful piece, begun as a tribute to Vienna
but put aside while the Great War was fought—and not finished
until 1920. Ravel’s rendering of a 19th-century imperial court
features a series of waltz themes that then are reintroduced
in manic, corrupted fashions, ending in tumult. It’s probably
too polite sounding these days to impart an antiwar message,
but here’s hoping that the happy audience may have taken something