> Opera and Oratorio
Risley, Buck; Phares, Rideout, Kelley; Florentine Opera Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Boggs. English text. Naxos 8.669032-33 (2)
Robert Aldridge's opera Elmer Gantry, adapted from Sinclair Lewis's 1927 satire of evangelism, has become the poster child for how nearly impossible it is to get a new work produced by an American opera company. A New York Times article from 2008 described Elmer Gantry's seventeen-year search for a full production as filled with "bad luck, horrible road trips, hat-in-hand humiliations, hubris and its antidote." Fortunately, Aldridge and his librettist, Herschel Garfein, remained undeterred, and Gantry received not only its world premiere from the Nashville Opera in November 2007 but a follow-up production in 2010 from Florentine Opera, which was recorded by Naxos.
In telling this colorful cautionary tale, Aldridge appropriates numerous period-appropriate genres, such as anthems, club songs, revival hymns and marches. They all sound authentic, but the surface attractiveness belies the skill and complexity of their construction. Even more to the point, these numbers almost always become the springboard to extended skillful layering that propels the scene dramatically. One outstanding example is the Act II quasi-hoedown "New wine has to go in new bottles," sung amid preparations for the opening of Elmer's flashy, expensive new house of worship. Catchy on its own, the tune then interweaves with a quartet of dissenters who consider Elmer to be a charlatan; consequently, it becomes a dramatic battle of religious philosophies beneath the cheerful surface, with soloists, dueling quartets, and the full ensemble firing volleys back and forth. Even the one actual song that Aldridge uses in its original form — "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" — becomes about doubt and soul-searching in context. Vale Rideout uses his robust, characterful tenor to make this a passage of compelling complexity for his character, Frank Shallard.
The masterful penultimate sequence begins with another foot-stomping gospel number, proceeds through a gripping "j'accuse" sequence to a dramatic confessional and ends with an immolation scene. Aldridge builds the suspense relentlessly and caps the scene with a final aria for Sister Sharon Falconer (Elmer's fiancée and fellow evangelist), who refuses to leave the burning building, choosing instead to stay with her followers and join God. The panic and momentum subside for a minute, revealing the eerie, unearthly calm in the moment before death, the quiet at the center of the swirling storm of flames. It's a transfixing depiction.
Much of the show hinges on Elmer's personal charisma, and Keith Phares is bold, invigorating and ingratiating in the role. He riles up the crowds with his steely, naturally charismatic baritone (aided by Aldridge's fiery orchestrations). Phares's Elmer is clearly a scoundrel, but he betrays not a trace of smarminess. He meets his match only when he joins up with Sister Sharon. As Sharon, a fictional stand-in for Aimee Semple McPherson, mezzo Patricia Risley makes a radiant impression in her introductory aria and successfully maintains this lofty standard. Risley establishes Sharon as capable of weaving spells quite different from Elmer's; hers are rapturous and sublime, not viscerally barn-storming.
Tenor Frank Kelley, as Eddie Fislinger, a bitter rival who sees through Elmer's hypocrisy, does a marvelous job with the tour-de-force Act I curtain number, a laughing song demonstrating that Elmer's manipulative successes (and outright theft of one of Eddie's best sermon lines) have rendered Eddie virtually insane. As the trampy preacher's daughter Lulu, Eddie's wife and an ex-flame of Elmer's, the impressively agile soprano Heather Buck seduces Gantry, in what amounts to a sting operation, with a highly suggestive lullaby that turns into a rapturous trio. (Eddie observes the proceedings from a hiding place.) The Florentine Opera Chorus and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra perform exuberantly under conductor William Boggs, who seems perfectly comfortable with the disparate idioms. Garfein told TheNew York Times that at one point during the opera's obstacle-laden journey to production, he declared to his colleagues, "We're on the verge of writing the great American opera." A boldly ambitious statement, to be sure — but then again, so is Elmer Gantry.
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