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Set just before World War I, Sinclair Lewis' incendiary novel Elmer Gantry tells a story of old-time religion, illicit romance and revenge. Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein' operatic adaptation is a 'marvelous amalgam of toe-tapping accessibility' fu
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Many operas succeed almost in spite of a weak libretto, but "Elmer Gantry" is an exception. Lewis' novel tends to wander and to use one-dimensional sterotyped characters. The opera is the product of endless revisions and rewritings. Garfein has written a tight, impressive text which drives the action forward and adds strong elements of complexity to the novel. Characters are developed, and the work shows substantial sympathy with the forces underlying evangelical religion as well as with one of the characters, the woman evangelist, Sharon Falconer. The libretto and the story line are integral to this opera.
Aldridge's score has a distinctly varied American tone. It is replete with gospel singing, marches, dances, small town scenes, soliloquies, and ensemble pieces. The strongest influences on the work appear to be Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess", and the Americana music of Copland, particularly his opera "The Tender Land." The traditional hymn "What a Friend we have in Jesus" appears in a key scene and there are echoes of other gospel works; but the score and the text are original. I found that the most effective sections musically were the choral numbers, especially the gospel-inflected sections, and the soliloquies in which the primary characters show their inntermost thoughts. Sharon Falconer. Gantry's friend Frank, sung by Vale Rideout, and Eddie, sung by Frank Kelly. and even Gantry himself have long soliloquies that reveal their characters and move the action forward. The opera includes some effective moments for quartet as well. The cataclysmic scene at the end of the opera works as a drama rather than only because of the quality of the music.
The opera tells the story of Elmer Gantry, an unscrupulous hypocrite who breaks the heart of at least two women and who brazenly casts himself as an evangelist and a minister of the gospel in pursuit only of the main chance and of selfish ends. The opera captures Gantry's evil while managing to offer a more sympathetic portrayal of the rural American heartland in the early 20th century. The story is set in Kansas and Missouri.
The performance on the CD is radiant, committed and lively. It presents the work well. The recording includes a complete text of Garfein's libretto together with excellent liner notes on the opera itself and on Lewis' novel. The booklet also includes a timeline on the history of American revivialism which is useful for placing "Elmer Gantry", opera and novel, in context.
I was glad to be reminded of art in my old hometown. But I was even happier to get to know this opera which is an expression of American creativity and an artistic look at an important part of the American experience.
Total Time: 2:21:38
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.
and the excitement and musical invention don't let up.
Aldridge's music is muscular and splendidly orchestrated,
and Garfein's libretto is by turns witty and moving. The
combination is first rate.
Exceptional moments include Frank's moving prayer, Eddie's
"laughing" aria, the Pequot Farm Instrument aria,
and the great octet with chorus.
Keith Phares sings with real dramatic impact in a complex role.
This is an excellent addition to the catalog and should be
in every opera lover's collection.
Featuring Keith Phares in the titular role that Lancaster essayed on screen more than half a century ago, and produced with the participation of Milwaukee's Florentine Opera Company, this superb two-and-a-half hour slice of early 20th century Americana from Aldridge and Garfein is given excellent recording sound by the engineers at Naxos, who have given classical music listeners top-notch recordings at very reasonable prices. Even more significant, however, is the opera and performance of it in question, with William Boggs conducting the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the recording being made in March 2010. All-American influences of every kind, from white and black gospel music to the influences of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, encompass "Elmer Gantry", while still making it a timely meditation on religion in America, both past and present, and how one man can preach the Gospel up to the hilt while repeatedly failing to live up to such lofty ideas (the most recent examples of Elmer Gantry types being Jimmy Swaggart, the late Jerry Falwell, and Ralph Reed).
I would rank this as not only one of the best recordings of any kind for 2011, but also as a pre-eminent American opera of this century and millennium. Highly recommended.