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Aldridge: Elmer Gantry

5.0 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Set just before World War I, Sinclair
Lewis's incendiary novel Elmer
Gantry tells a story of old-time
religion, illicit romance and revenge.
Robert Aldridge and Herschel
Garfein's operatic adaptation is a
'marvelous amalgam of toe-tapping
accessibility' (Opera News) full of
hymns, gospel songs, marches and
dance, evoking the period in a score
which echoes Gershwin and Copland.
This all-American production
combines a first-rate cast of singers
and a world-class orchestra for 'an
intoxicating experience' (The New
York Times).

Review

54th Annual Grammy Award Winner, Best Classical Contemporary Composition; Best Engineered Classical Album --National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences
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Product Details

  • Orchestra: Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
  • Conductor: William Boggs, Scott Stewart
  • Composer: Robert Aldridge, Herschel Garfein
  • Audio CD (July 26, 2011)
  • Number of Discs: 2
  • Label: Naxos American Classics
  • ASIN: B0052FG8BS
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #185,916 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 17, 2011
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
I was attracted at first to this new Naxos "American Opera Classics" CD because it is performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Milwaukee's opera company, the Florentine Opera. These are venerable organizations to me because they gave me my first live exposure to symphonic and operatic music as a child in Milwaukee more than a half century ago. Probably more importantly, I wanted to hear a new American opera based upon a well-known, if not classic work of American literature. Based on Sinclair Lewis' 1927 novel of the same name, "Elmer Gantry" is an opera with music by Robert Aldridge and a Libretto by Herschel Garfein that received its premiere from the Nashville Opera in 2007. The recording here is of another "heartland" performance. It is of March, 2010 live performances in Milwaukee at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts which did not exist at the time I lived in the city. The renowned singers in the cast include Keith Phares as Elmer Gantry and Patricia Risley as Sharon Falconer.

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.
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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.
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From the opening bars, Elmer Gantry grips you by the throat,
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.
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It may be inappropriate for me to cmmment, since I was a chorister on this recording of the live performance. As such, I had an inside appreciation of the intricacies of Aldridge's magnificent score. It's a very visual piece, that is better seen than listened to, and it's immense theatricality is diminished on this recording.The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is nothing less than perfect, with complete care to the complexities of the score, thanks to Mstro Boggs. Quite often the power of the orchestra overpowered the vocals, but the lead performers had focus and power to overcome that. Keith Phares, as Gantry, is the definitve realization of this most enigmatic charcter. Clear diction and strong voice, not to mention lady-killer looks, no one could be better. His acting is solid, with conviction. Patricia Risley is equally powerful, a forceful mezzo, as Sharon, the evangelist that Gantry tries so hard to impress. Excellent, perfect performances from Frank Kelley, Vale Rideout and Heather Buck add to the excitement of the very complex score. As I said, it's a very visual piece, and I'm sad that the fine, intuitive staging of stage director, John Hoomes, can only be appreciated through the energetic performances on this CD. So very proud to be a part of this recording.
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