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ALDRIDGE: Sister Carrie

CD Button Zabala, Jordheim; Phares, Morgan, Cunningham; Florentine Opera Chorus and Company, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Boggs. English text. Naxos 8.669039-40 (2)

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Charmed and dangerous: Phares, Morgan and Zabala in Milwaukee
Photo by Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films
Recordings Sister Carrie Cover 318
Critics Choice Button 1015

THIS EXCITING NEW OPERA by composer Robert Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein—the team behind the well-received Elmer Gantry—had its premiere at Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera Company in October 2016. It faithfully follows Theodore Dreiser’s disturbing 1900 novel about the star-is-born rise of Carrie Meeber, a small-town girl who flees home in search of something better, and the simultaneous fall of George Hurstwood, the married and successful Chicago restaurant manager whose fatal attraction to her seals his doom.

Aldridge and Garfein are very good at large-scale musical sequences with cinematic sweep; here, they’re set in the oppressive shoe factory where Carrie first finds work, in Hurstwood’s restaurant, inside a theater where Carrie is auditioning for a show and between a group of trolley strikers and the homeless men recruited as their replacements. Only a few numbers misfire. Carrie’s big Act I aria, “Everything is paid for,” in which she contemplates the fact that her would-be paramour, Charlie Drouet, has set her up in an apartment and is paying her bills, is lush and opulent, but clearly there are darker, more cynical implications to such an arrangement that are not reflected in the music. The Act II play-within-a-play—Carrie’s first show—goes on for too long, and it’s not clear if it’s meant as a send-up.

But much else is well done. In one inventive scene, Carrie tells Hurstwood at the restaurant that she wants to be a singer. He throws out potential character types for her to try out (Ingénue! Street urchin! English Lady!), and she spontaneously aces each with dramatic and musical flair. Another standout section begins when Hurstwood is served the petition for dissolution of his marriage; his wife sings the legalistic text (and he responds irately) over a driving, 6/8, marchlike accompaniment. Shortly, he sings a gorgeous aria about his love for Carrie (“You are the only wonder”), which segues into the pivotal moment at which he steals cash from the restaurant safe. Gripping, Bernard Herrmann-esque music follows as Hurstwood dupes Carrie into boarding a train, claiming that Drouet has been hospitalized. Aldridge and Garfein adroitly sustain the drama.

Keith Phares, who created Elmer Gantry, sings Hurstwood with charisma. He radiates hospitality in his rousing first number and shines in a pitiably ironic Act II piece. Mezzo Ariana Zabala, as Carrie, shows remarkable vocal and dramatic versatility. She’s exuberant during her fleeting scenes of happiness with Phares and heartbreaking in the Act II duet in which they both read Carrie’s letter announcing that she’s leaving him.  

Ashley Puenner is sympathetic and remarkably unshrewish as Hurstwood’s suspicious and socially conscious wife. Alisa Suzanne Jordheim, as Carrie’s fellow working actress Lola, sounds glorious with Zabala in the flashy, giddy duet sequence during which they read each other love letters from their fans. Ariana Douglas, as the socialite Mrs. Vance, delivers in grand style a showpiece aria that demonstrates how Carrie and Hurstwood have been welcomed into New York’s elite circles. Matt Morgan, possessed of a buoyant tenor, is uplifting as Drouet.

Aldridge composes in a conservative, tonal language, but he knows how to deploy dissonance for dramatic purposes. He is a deft storyteller with a keen sense of the theatrical and a knack for applying the right style to Garfein’s mostly rhyming libretto. That, along with the luxuriant playing by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under William Boggs and the considerable contributions by the Florentine Opera Chorus, is more than enough for a thoroughly successful new opera.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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