We almost saw an opera entitled Boule de Suif, or the Good Whore. However, around last December, Glimmerglass Opera, who commissioned the piece, came to an agreement with Stephen Hartke, the American composer whose first opera this was going to be, to change the title to The Greater Good, or the Passion of Boule de Suif. The opera company was worried about selling an opera with the word "whore" in the title. (I'm not so sure that would have been a problem!) And Hartke was planning to dedicate the opera to his mother, and with the original title, it was "just not right." (NY Times, Arts & Leisure, 7/16/06, p. 23)
So, last Saturday we headed up to Glimmerglass for a matinée performance of The Greater Good, or the Passion of Boule de Suif, which had its world premiere a few weeks earlier.
The Glimmerglass Opera house is on Otsego Lake about 8 miles north of Cooperstown, a cute town with an obsession with baseball and, perhaps consequently, a serious dearth of decent places to eat. However, Cooperstown does have Willis Monie Books, where I picked up a first edition with dust jacket of Peter De Vries The Prick of Noon, and read it soon thereafter. For lunch we chose the Blue Mingo, which gives you a nice view of Otsego Lake, but small portions and high prices. (How often do you need to order another appetizer after you've finished the entrées?)
The Greater Good, or the Passion of Boule de Suif is based on a short story by Maupassant. It is winter in early 1871, during the Franco-Prussian War. A group of ten French citizens are fleeing the German-occupied Rouen and meet in a stagecoach headed to Le Havre. Of these ten passengers, three men of varying middle-class and aristocratic backgrounds find common ground in how they're going to make money from the war. Their wives gossip about people they know in common. Two nuns sit quietly praying. A budding Communard talks politics.
The tenth passenger is ignored until she's recognized as a famous prostitute nicknamed Boule de Suif (loosely, Butterball). The other passengers begin by treating her with contempt, but warm up to her when they discover that she's the only one with the foresight to bring some food along, and is all too willing to share it with her coach mates. She tells them of her patriotism and loyalty to Napolean III and her hatred for the German occupiers, one of whom she tried to kill.
The stagecoach stops at an inn for the night, where everybody gets food and sleep. But a German commandant who's taken control of the inn (and who never makes an appearance on stage) refuses to let the passengers continue their journey until Boule de Suif spends the night with him. She adamantly refuses.
As the days go by, the other passengers plead with Boule de Suif in more and more elaborate ways to just give the commandant what he wants so they can all be on their way. Do it for "the greater good," they ask. Even one of the nuns speaks up (a coloratura role) to explain how it's not a sin if it's only her body and not her mind.
Will Boule de Suif do as they ask? And if she does, will they still respect her in the morning?
Stephen Hartke is a witty and imaginative composer, and this subject proved ideal for his talents. His atmopheric music caught the tone of the cold night in which the stagecoach departs, and he provided a teeth-chattering setting of the wives singing "I'm cold." At the inn, dinner is accompanied by a musical knocking of spoons against soup bowls, and towards the end of the opera, the violins are used for a passage that sends ripples of laughter through the audience.
Yet, Hartke is much more than just clever. I enjoyed best those quiet parts of the opera, and particularly the end, which is both still and sad.