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She met all demands: Worra in The Greater Good.

Not Greater, Greatest

By B.A. Nilsson

The Greater Good

Glimmerglass Opera, Cooperstown, Aug. 3

As 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.

Fire and Color (Mozart Excepted)

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Saratoga 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 second movement.

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 subconsciously away.

—B.A. Nilsson

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