Sinclair Lewis’s novel, published in 1927, is a satire on preachers
in first and foremost Kansas City, where he studied the so-called
“Sunday School Meetings”. Elmer Gantry is an athlete who is
quite keen on women during his college days but then becomes
a lawyer and in the end a Methodist minister. He is manager
for Sharon Falconer, an itinerant evangelist, who is killed
in a fire. His life is surrounded by a lot of downfall, injury
and even deaths of important people. There is a fire where,
Sharon and her followers are immolated, but he ends up in a
new career. I haven’t read the novel but the opera seems to
follow the original story very closely – though it should be
added that Garfield used only parts of the novel for the libretto.
Elmer Gantry is a hypocrite, but, as Richard Dyer says in his
liner notes, ‘a well-meaning hypocrite’. The novel was controversial,
became a bestseller but was also banned in some cities. Today
it is topical, just as Laurent Petitgirard’s Guru is
topical in its way. In both cases fanaticism is a central theme
but in Elmer Gantry it is more business-like.
Dramatically it is tautly constructed and, I believe, well conceived
for the stage. It works well also as a listening experience
and with the libretto printed in the booklet it is easy to follow
the unfolding of the story. A strongly contributing factor is
the music. Modern opera is not necessarily difficult opera,
as has become ever more obvious during the last two decades.
Composers like Glass, Adams, Heggie and several others have
returned to melody as a fundamental building-block. Aldridge’s
aim was to create music that ‘reflects the religious and popular
music of the period of the story’ as Richard Dyer says in his
extensive notes. You will find hymns, gospel songs, marches,
dances; influences from Gershwin, film music and Broadway isn’t
too far away. These are all inspirations; there is only one
‘loan’ and that is the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
Everything else is original music by Aldridge. The opera is
divided into thirteen scenes, some of them quite long, and an
epilogue. Within those scenes there are recitative-like sections,
where the music follows the text very closely and sensitively.
Often the recitative is almost imperceptibly condensed into
arias or duets. The first scene in act II (CD 2 tr 2) illustrates
this very well. It’s a close to quarter-of-an-hour-long duet
between Elmer and Sharon. This is music-drama at its best with
Sharon’s solo marvellously beautiful and the duet that follows
is a stroke of genius. I only wish that the applause after Sharon’s
final words And be at rest had been edited out. Now
it comes as a slap in the face.
It seems that the musical inspiration flowed at its richest
in the second act – but it may also be that I had assimilated
the idiom more completely. Anyway the Broadway-style marching
music of the next scene with wonderful rapport between solo
voices and chorus is totally captivating. Frank’s long aria
that follows (CD 2 tr. 4) is another highlight, as is the trio
(CD 2 tr 5). As a matter of fact this opera is a pleasure to
hear from beginning to end.
None of the singers were known to me but they are all first
class in every respect and deeply involved. Garfein and Aldridge
explicitly wrote this opera for ‘American singing-actors, who
know how to internalize, then deliver, their own yeasty language,
and how to sing many different kinds of American music’ (Richard
Dyer again). This is graphically brought over to the listener
even without the visual impression. The chorus and orchestra
are excellent. William Boggs knows the score inside out, having
also conducted the premiere in Nashville in November 2007. The
recording can’t be faulted and I can heartily endorse the opinion
of a man after the premiere turning to his wife, saying: ‘This
is better than any Broadway show’.
also review by John Sheppard