Robert ALDRIDGE (b.1954)
Elmer Gantry - Opera in two Acts [2:21:38]
Elmer Gantry - Keith Phares (baritone); Sharon Falconer - Patricia Risley (mezzo); Frank Shallard - Vale Rideout (tenor); Eddie Fislinger - Frank Kelley (tenor); Lulu Baines - Heather Buck (soprano)
Florentine Opera Chorus; Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/William Boggs
rec. live, 19-21 March 2010, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Uihlein Hall, Miwaukee, Wisconsin.
Full libretto included.
NAXOS 8.669032-33 [69:24+72:14]
I have never read the Sinclair Lewis novel Elmer Gantry, and am unable to comment on the skill with which the librettist, Herschel Garfein, has adapted it for this opera. What is obvious from the result, however, is that both composer and librettist are very much men of the theatre, knowing how to use words and music to create dramatic structures. This may be due in part to the long genesis of the opera. It was first conceived in 1990, drafted for piano-accompanied workshop performances in 1992 and 1994, and finally achieved full stage performance in 2007 in Nashville. The present recording derives from the third set of performances, clearly much enjoyed by an audience whose applause and occasional laughter is apparent but not distracting.
Elmer Gantry is set in the world of revival evangelism in early twentieth-century America, where the gap between the message being preached and the reality of the preachers was notably wide. All of the leading characters are in some way crooked or inadequate but all are intent on making a success of their particular brand of religion, mainly for reasons of greed. Aldridge has made very good use of the musical idioms of that time, admittedly a real gift to the composer but used here with great success both in set pieces and as a general stylistic background. The plot is involved and concerns the devious rise of the central character in various evangelical groups, and his relationships with other evangelists. It is divided into no less than fourteen scenes and has parts for numerous minor characters. There is no time for the audience to get bored as the potent mixture of religion and sex passes quickly by. I would love to see it on stage, with an imaginative producer and designer and with really theatrical singers in the main parts.
What we have here, however, is simply the music. Naxos are to be congratulated on a splendid presentation with the full text in the booklet as well as articles about the opera and the original novel, a synopsis of the former, and photographs of the production on which the recording is based. However, whilst I can admire the skill of composer and librettist I find it hard to discover much that is especially imaginative or memorable in the opera. It is never less than professionally written or performed but neither does it seem to rise far above that basic level of competence. - not that this is something that can by any means be taken for granted with new operas. As it has already had three sets of performances it clearly works in the theatre, which must be the true test of opera. I look forward to hearing it live, but in the meantime I am glad to have had the opportunity to get to know it through these discs. There is much to enjoy here even if I suspect that this is not a work I will wish to return to often.
There is much to enjoy here even if I suspect that this is not a work I will wish to return to often.