George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera
The normally svelte soprano Caroline Worra needed some high-tech costuming to portray the notoriously rotund Boule de Suif.
George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera
Elaine Alvarez plays the lonely and befuddled Comtesse de Breville, in Glimmerglass Opera's production of The Greater Good.
George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera
Boule de Suif (Caroline Worra) is the center of attention when the fate of her fellow travelers depends on her decisions.
ACT ONE: Set in the 19th century, during the Franco-Prussian war, The Greater Good begins in Rouen, which has been occupied by the Prussians. It's before dawn on a frigid, winter day. Ten French citizens are about to board a large, horse-drawn coach. The passengers are taking the coach to Dieppe, and from there can reach unoccupied Havre.
The travelers have all decided on this plan independently. They include Mr. and Mrs. Loiseau, who run a successful wine business with a reputation for shady deals. There are also two other couples. Mr. Carré-Lamadon is a wealthy cotton-trader and a member of the Legion of Honor. He's accompanied by his beautiful and much younger wife. We also meet the Count and Countess de Bréville, from one of Normandy's most ancient clans. Two of the men know each other, and there are introductions all around as everyone boards the coach to get out of the cold.
The three couples all sit down at the same end of the coach. In the dark, it's hard to see their four traveling companions at the other end. As the trip gets underway, the women gossip and the men discuss business and politics. When the sky begins to lighten, the other four passengers are revealed. Two are nuns, huddled together over their rosaries, praying softly. There's also a man named Cornudet — a political radical viewed with suspicion by the wealthy couples.
But it's the final passenger whose presence gets everyone's attention. She's a famous courtesan named Elisabeth Rousset, but better known as Boule de Suif — literally, "Ball of Fat." Maupassant describes her as, "short and round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers looking like rows of short sausages; with a shiny, tightly-stretched skin and an enormous bust filling out the bodice of her dress ..." But he also describes her as, "attractive and much sought after, owing to her fresh and pleasing appearance. Her face was like a crimson apple, a peony-bud just bursting into bloom; she had two magnificent dark eyes, fringed with thick, heavy lashes, which cast a shadow into their depths ..."
The three couples — especially the wives — are scandalized to be in the same coach with Boule de Suif.
The day wears on, and the journey is taking far longer than planned. Lunchtime comes and goes, and there's been no place to stop for food. The passengers are hungry and annoyed — except for Boule de Suif. As the others complain about their missed lunch, she produces a large basket of food, stuffed with delicacies: Two jellied chickens, four bottles of wine, several cheeses, foie gras, fresh pears, gingerbread and a jar of pickles. She begins to eat, while the others watch enviously.
When she offers to share, her haughty travel companions are reluctant. But soon their hunger wins the day and even the three rich couples accept her generosity — against their better judgment. Now, it seems, the passengers are all one, big happy family, and they share their wartime experiences. Boule de Suif expresses a particular hatred for the invaders. She says she's leaving town on the sly, after physically attacking a Prussian soldier. Her new "friends" commend her for her courage and conviction.
Near nightfall, after 13 hours on the road, they reach a town with an inn. A Prussian officer orders them out of the coach. He demands everyone's papers and takes them to his commandant for inspection. The travelers are welcomed by the innkeepers, a couple named Follenvie, who get everyone ready for dinner. But the officer returns, and says the commandant wants to see Mademoiselle Rousset — Boule de Suif. At first she refuses but when the Count advises her not to cause trouble, she goes. When she returns, she's outraged at the Commandant's demands, but won't say exactly what happened.
After dinner, everyone retires to their rooms. A leering Mr. Loiseau peeks out his door to watch Boule de Suif on her way to the common bathroom. As he looks on, she's confronted by Cornudet. There's an argument. Cornudet has requested her services and Boule de Suif is refusing him, saying it's unthinkable with all these Prussians around.
Titillated by what he's seen, Loiseau whispers suggestively to his wife, and climbs into bed with her.
ACT TWO: The next morning, the travelers gather outside in the cold to be on their way. But while the coach is there, the horses are nowhere to be seen. Mr. Follenvie tells them that the Prussian commandant has ordered them not to leave, without giving a reason. The men are outraged — they have business appointments to meet — and they leave in a huff to find out what's going on. Their wives are distressed at having to be cooped up in the modest inn. They return to their rooms and, in turn, we hear all of their complaints. The Countess, for example, misses her comfortable home and, especially, her cat.
The men return, saying the commandant is adamant. They are not allowed to leave and he won't say why. But before long, things start to become clear. When the travelers are all together, Follenvie brings a message from the Commandant. He wants to know whether Boule de Suif has changed her mind. She tells him emphatically that she has not, and never will.
At first, she won't say more. But when the others harangue her, demanding to know what's going on, she relents and admits that the Commandant wants to sleep with her. Respectable citizens all, everyone is outraged.
But they're all stuck at the inn for another day. It's mid-winter, and the next morning is even colder than the last. The women are freezing, and their husbands are increasingly worried about their business interests. The three wives see the commandant in the distance, and agree that he's not bad looking. As the day winds down, Boule de Suif shares a moment with the coachman. He's no happier than the rest at being stuck in the middle of nowhere, though he takes it a bit more philosophically.
The next day, Boule de Suif hears that there's going to be a baptism at a nearby church, and decides to attend. It reminds her of her own child, whom she gave up. He's living far away, and she only sees him once each year.
By now, attitudes have begun to change. While Boule de Suif is gone, the others decide that they simply can't stay at the inn any longer — not when there's an obvious way out. Boule de Suif must be persuaded to give the Commandant what he wants. The women say he must be a decent sort. He could have taken any one of them by force and chose Boule de Suif instead, so he clearly respects married women.
The couples come up with a plan. When Boule de Suif returns, they play a guessing game that leads to stories about famous historical characters — all of which give Boule de Suif the example they hope she'll follow. The Count tells the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. Loiseau comes up with a fanciful tale of Roman women who seduced the soldiers of Hannibal to help defend their city. In a furious aria, one of the nuns says she's been a nurse for the military, and tells about women — "angels," she calls them — who followed the armies and gave the soldiers comfort and solace she couldn't provide. Finally, the Count takes Boule de Suif aside and makes a direct, personal appeal — on behalf of everyone else, of course.
The following evening, when they all gather for dinner, the innkeeper announces that Boule de Suif isn't feeling well, and won't be joining them. She'll be staying in her room, upstairs — where the commandant also has his quarters. They all look at the innkeeper inquisitively — and he nods.
They all begin shouting, "It's a go!" until Loiseau shushes everyone, and looks up at the ceiling. At point, the opera features some rather graphic music, described in the score as the Music of the Bedsprings and leaving nothing to the imagination. The travelers, who quickly realize what's happening, are both aghast and ecstatic. After all, it is what they've been hoping for. Loiseau orders champagne and the couples begin to celebrate. The radical republican Cornudet condemns their behavior as "infamous," but the others mock him for his sanctimony.
The next morning, everyone but Boule de Suif has gathered in the courtyard. The horses are hitched up, and the coach is ready to depart. Mrs. Follenvie gives the travelers food for the journey. When Boule de Suif finally arrives, looking harried and disheveled, the food is gone. She quietly greets the other women, who turn away from her coldly. Boule de Suif is plainly angry, but she holds it in and boards the coach with the others still ignoring her.
When lunchtime comes, everyone but Boule de Suif has plenty to eat. They enjoy their meal, but offer Boule de Suif nothing. The nuns sing a hymn. The Loiseaus play cards, and the men discuss business. Boule de Suif sits alone, in tears, while Cornudet whistles the Marseillaise. In the original story, Maupassant describes the final scene like this:
"And Boule de Suif still wept, and sometimes a sob she could not restrain was heard in the darkness between two verses of the song."