The January, 2012, issue of Opera News lists this as one of the top 10 opera recordings of 2011, and goes on to give just a glowing review of both the recording and the opera itself. This opera, by American composer Robert Aldridge, took 17 years from inception to its first performance in Nashville, Tennessee in 2005. Aldridge and his librettist, Herschel Garfein, have created a masterwork that stands in the front rank of American operas.
Based on Sinclair Lewis' novel Elmer Gantry, about a hypocritical Fundamentalist preacher, the opera is presented as a series of vignettes spanning a dozen years, from Gantry's decision to fake a religious conversion in order to take advantage of a free scholarship to Bible college (plus he was sleeping with the college president's daughter) to the tragic fire destroying his flashy new "tabernacle" and killing his love interest, fellow evangelist preacher Sharon Falconer (not-so-loosely based on Aimee Semple MacPherson.)
Aldridge and Garfein's Elmer Gantry is a more likeable rogue and hypocrite than was Lewis' original, and this recording of a live performance in 2007 by the Florentine Opera Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is anchored by the bravura singing of young American baritone Keith Phares who gives a riveting performance in the title role, both dramatically and musically. As Sharon Falconer, a role originally written for the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano Patricia Risely sings spectacularly with sumptuous tone and great expressiveness. And as Eddie Fislinger, Gantry's bitter rival who sees through his hypocrisy, tenor Frank Kelly does a show-stopping Act I closing number with incredible virtuosity, a "laughing" aria demonstrating that Gantry's behavior, his success, his outright theft of one of Eddie's sermons and Gantry's seduction of his wife have rendered him virtually insane. The rest of the large cast is also first-class.
The Florentine Opera Chorus and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra perform brilliantly under conductor William Boggs. The score is incredibly tuneful, dramatic, and compelling. There are great gospel choral numbers, quartets, small groups--you name it. After listening to it the first time, I immediately sat down and listened to it all over again. It is amazing (and disheartening) that it took so long for the opera to be performed. Kudos to Nashville Opera and the Florentine Opera Company for giving this American classic its long overdue debut. (Major American opera companies--are you taking notice?!?)
Run, do not walk, to add this opera to your listening repertoire.