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Adriana Zabala and Alisa Jordheim, Carrie and Lola, in Florentine Opera's world premiere production of Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein Sister Carrie
Ball Square Films
Zabala and Matt Morgan’s Charles Drouet
Ball Square Films
Keith Phares as George Hurstwood
Ball Square Films
FLORENTINE OPERA SCORED a success on October 7, with the world premiere of Sister Carrie, based upon Theodore Dreiser’s urban fable of a young country girl’s pursuit of the American Dream. The opera is a collaboration of composer Robert Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein, who gave us the Grammy award-winning Elmer Gantry.
Like Gantry, Sister Carrie trades in archetypal themes of the American experience—this time the lure of money and social standing. And like its predecessor, the new opera is triumphantly, and unapologetically tonal. Its music skillfully propels the narrative forward—perhaps even more so than Gantry, which was relatively text driven. Garfein’s intelligent dramaturgy conceives episodes like George Hurstwood’s temptation towards embezzlement as true operatic soliloquies. The score fields some wonderful touches. George’s domestic unhappiness is vividly drawn with a cacophony of sound in an ensemble concerning a petty squabble over theatre tickets, which contrasted nicely with a gentle harp figure underscoring Carrie’s major aria. Aldridge knows how to bring down a curtain, and he ended the first act with a marvelous effect as the brass rendered a poignant evocation of the lonely sound of a distant train, while Carrie and George escape to New York by rail and their relationship begins its downward slide. The second act might benefit from editing. Two scenes devoted to a vaudeville detailing Carrie’s theatrical rise are amusing, but detour the primary narrative overmuch—particularly as a delightful duet about stage door Johnnies for Carrie and the showgirl Lola already provides tension relief.
There were some excellent performances. The title role is a tricky wicket, something of a turn-of-the-century Manon. Adriana Zabala created a sympathetic Carrie whose actions were entirely understandable. Zabala’s warmly-textured lyric mezzo registered enchantingly, with an easy fluidity reflective of her capability in Baroque music, and she resonated to text insightfully. She was given a lovely aria “Everything is Paid For” in which she deftly revealed the girl’s frightened need to find a safe place. Carrie’s lover George is the more interesting character however (as was the case in William Wyler’s 1952 film, in which Laurence Olivier gave one of his best performances). Baritone Keith Phares nailed the assignment with a beautifully sung, keenly nuanced account of Hurstwood’s plunge into desolate desperation. Beyond his work in standard rep, Phares has carved out a notable career niche as an authentic contemporary-American-opera divo. His George joined an impressive gallery of finely-drawn character portraits.
Matt Morgan’s attractive tenor wrestled a bit with the singer-unfriendly acoustic in Uihlein Hall, but his Charles Drouet nonetheless emerged appealingly as the “pleasant faced” object of Carrie’s early social ambitions. Alisa Jordheim displayed a sparkling coloratura as Lola. Standouts included Ariana Douglas’s Mrs. Vance, Stephen Cunningham’s Captain, Nathan Krueger’s Hanson, and Jim Gottfried’s Head Striker.
Conductor William Boggs drew glorious sound from the Milwaukee symphony. William Florescu’s straightforward staging and Kris Stone’s setting of industrial cogs and an omnipresent moon framed matters nicely. Florentine must have put a generous portion of their NEA grant on Rachel Laritz’s gorgeous costumes; there seemed like a zillion of them. Sister Carrie was a satisfying evening, and an important addition to the American operatic canon. —Mark Thomas Ketterson