RECORD OF THE MONTH
Robert ALDRIDGE (b. 1954)
Elmer Gantry - Opera in Two Acts (2007)
Libretto by Herschel Garfein based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis
Keith Phares (baritone) – Elmer Gantry; Patricia Risley (mezzo) – Sharon Falconer; Vale Rideout (tenor) – Frank Shallard; Frank Kelley (tenor) – Eddie Fislinger; Heather Buck (soprano) – Lulu Baines; Florentine Opera Chorus
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/William Boggs
rec. Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, 19 -21 March 2010
libretto in English enclosed
NAXOS 8.669032-33 [69:24 + 72:14]
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’.