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The Real Thing 

Madame Butterball

Wednesday, Aug 29 2007
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Madame Butterball

Stephen Hartke’s The Greater Good is something we’ve long awaited: an American opera of genuine musical stature that uses the elements of opera in proper balance to create dramatic ebb and flow consistent with a storyline. The opera is out on a two-CD Naxos album, recorded at its premiere last year at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York. It runs two and one-half hours; it could use a little trimming here and there, but what new opera couldn’t?

The story is Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif,” one of that French master’s magnificent ironies. Boule de Suif (“Ball of Fat” or, perhaps, “Butterball”) is a prostitute of considerable renown. Fleeing from Rouen in a packed stagecoach after the Franco-Prussian War, she alone has food, which she shares with her hungry, aristocratic fellow passengers. The coach is stopped and held prisoner by a Prussian officer at an inn. The passengers implore Butterball to venture her talents upon the officer to gain their freedom. At first, she is proud: She is not for hire. Then she relents. Next morning, the passengers embark; Butterball joins them, worn and bedraggled from a hard night’s work. They snub her: a common whore. The coach rumbles on.

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The text is Hartke’s own, drawn from Philip Littell’s dramatic adaptation. The marvel of his music is its impulsive sense of ensemble, a bristling counterpoint in which the personalities of the individual passengers, crowded together in that rattletrap of a coach, burst forth. The orchestra is well used, a dissonant, sardonic commentary nicely balanced against the continuous fabric of interwoven anger and self-important pride. Now and then, a solo voice breaks through with some kind of aria; there are lovely, sad moments in the second act as the imprisoned passengers dream of home. One woman waxes rhapsodic over memories of snow “. . . except that it gets dirty right away.” An old man fusses about losing his bank accounts to the occupying Germans; an old woman misses her cat; a nun quietly recites her rosary. Boule de Suif herself is the voice of calmness, as she thrills the crowd with accounts of her conquests, her methods. Later, as the group is marooned at the inn and must pass the time in storytelling, the music loses some momentum; here is where some trimming might be in order. But there is one delicious moment, as the Butterball magic enfolds the susceptible Prussian officer and the creak of bedsprings (squeaky high woodwinds) filters down to the waiting crowd below.

The recording is from a live Glimmerglass performance conducted by Stewart Robertson, efficient and clear, every voice exactly right for what is needed, the audience presence to add a degree of resonance. Someday I’ll get to visit this enterprising little company in their tiny home in upstate New York with its amazing, adventurous repertory, next door to all the baseball stuff. The cream of it gets to the New York City Opera; I don’t know whether there are plans for this work by Hartke, who is on faculty here at USC, but there should be — in New York and for companies here as well. It will need superb musical and stage leadership to achieve the superb ensemble sense that you can hear on this recording.

It’s time also to mention the activities at Naxos over the past few years, totally contra the deplorable decline in recorded repertory elsewhere, in amassing a catalog of American music on disc. They include an “American Classics” catalog with every disc, and it’s an amazing document. It lists, for starters, practically everything important in the American symphonic repertory — Diamond, Harris, Schuman, Piston — newly recorded on Naxos. They go ’way back, with the Gottschalk collection I went bananas over a few weeks ago, and a disc of charming, amateurish music by the great diarist and self-styled critic George Templeton Strong. They offer more of Charlie Ives than any other label has ever carried, more of Sam Barber, and a 50-disc collection of serious music by American Jewish composers, underwritten by the Milken Archive.

French CzechStéphane Denève was last week’s Hollywood Bowl conductor, a Frenchman of impressive mane who had also won hearts at a Disney Hall concert last season. He had good reason to do so again. Dvorák’s Eighth Symphony is a heart-warmer, and Monsieur Denève has learned its secrets. Mostly, they consist of allowing the orchestra to relax and allow its textures to lie open, so that flutes and oboes can make their way through the strings. That’s what Brahms never learned, and why all the symphonies of Dvorák are so much more fun to hear than Onkel Johannes’ four ponderosities, however impressive their thought content.

Sergey Khachatryan was the soloist, crowd-pleasing before he played a single note of Prokofiev’s G-minor Violin Concerto, and crowd-pleasing all the more once he began. The stream of good-looking violinists is never-ending; it’s some kind of syndrome, I suppose. Young Mr. Kh . . . towers above the crowd; he was very, very good. That particular concerto towers too; it is a serious, intricate and genuinely intelligent work (despite its having been written for Heifetz, who, sure enough, played only on the surface of it on his recording).

All these good things happened on the program despite the wretchedness that began it, the Leopold Stokowski orchestral transcription, from the organ original, of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue. One must wonder: What brand of organ did Stokowski have in mind when he transcribed its sounds to the uncomprehending realm of the symphony orchestra? Perhaps a barrel organ at London’s Battersea Park? A Mighty Wurlitzer at Radio City Music Hall? I have had my reservations about the repertory and the sonorities rampant within the world of the pipe organ in my lifetime, but the sheer sonic brutality of that opening music the other night inspires me to bind myself to every pipe organ within reach — as some of my friends do to trees — to shield them from such abomination.

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