ALDRIDGE: Elmer Gantry (2007).
Keith Phares (Elmer Gantry); Patricia Risley (Sharon Falconer); Vale
Rideout (Frank Shallard); Frank Kelley (Eddie Fislinger); Heather
Baines); Florentine Opera Company & Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/William
Naxos 8.669032-33 TT: 141:38.
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Flash and fizzle. Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry is more satiric vaudeville
than a novel. Most of the characters stand for various shades of American
ignorance rather than appear as people you might actually meet. Under certain
conditions, this could provide a pretty good basis for a certain kind of
opera. However, composer Robert Livingstone Aldridge and librettist Herschel
Garfein (a composer himself) wanted to show people rather than types. They've
met with limited success, I think, but, then again, they had a mountain
to climb. If they had kept closer to the lines of something like Kurka's
The Good Soldier Schweik or Weill's Dreigroschenoper or Bernstein's Candide,
they might have reached the summit.
Elmer is a flashy cipher, a go-getter with an eye out for the main chance.
He starts out that way and ends up that way. There's no depth to him at
all, and the same can be said for every other character in the book. Sometimes,
an operatic genius like Mozart or Verdi can write music that supplies the
missing third dimension. Aldridge, although a fine composer, does not live
up to this standard, except in two instances -- Eddie, the cuckolded minister,
and Frank, Elmer's friend, a decent man torn by religious doubts. Sister
Sharon, the revivalist, should have joined that company, since Garfein
has written her character that way, but her music simply lacks distinction.
Eddie's a worm, but the worm turns and becomes more interesting. Frank
begins as Elmer's stooge and ends as an honest, tormented minister. Much
of these transformations is achieved through the music.
Aldridge's music is jaw-droppingly eclectic. The opening is close to
a direct steal from the opening to Porgy and Bess, and echoes of other
ring through the texture. Eddie's "transformation" aria could
have come from Don Giovanni or Fidelio or even Lakmé. One hears
a little bit of Boris here, a little bit of Turandot there. Yet that's
not enough to sink the project. More serious, I think, is Aldridge's
failure, despite individual scores, to provide dramatic music or music
character. Ultimately, I don't care about Elmer, Sharon, and most of
the others, and the music doesn't make me. I think it a matter of arias.
and Frank get winners. Far more effective are Aldridge's choral set pieces,
usually hymns, the revival music, the Elks scene. But this is essentially
scene-painting, background. Aldridge is a fine composer. There are complex
scenes and ensembles composed with an eye to clarity of action and text.
I just don't consider him an essentially dramatic one.
Every so often, somebody proclaims the death of opera as a serious art
form. For me, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, "Opera is not dead; it just
smells funny." Certainly, problems riddle it. The audience is essentially
conservative to the point where it wants only its favorites. It is loath
to take a chance on the unknown. Production costs soar to the level that
a company has to be out of its mind not to consider box office. Composers
must hustle even more than usual to stage even partial productions, "workshops," or
piano-vocal hearings (as did Aldridge and Garfein). In the U.S., private
foundations hand out a few awards, not always adequate. Nevertheless, Copland
once wittily called opera "la forme fatale." It continues to
draw composers to commit their time, money, and resources. When composers
are no longer beguiled, then opera becomes the indulgence of necrophilia.
Like most recent recordings of new operas, this CD derives from a live
performance (you can hear audience reaction throughout). For a live performance,
it's pretty good, including the sonics. This work is no pushover. It's
rhythmically complicated, with hair-trigger successive entrances from opposing
forces. The chorus in particular does heroic work. Most of the voices are
okay, without being world-class. However, you don't need Domingos, Flemings,
or Heppners for this work. From the rest of the cast, two members stand
out: Vale Rideout as Frank and Frank Kelley as Eddie. Rideout has a ringing
baritone, well-suited to large stages. Frank Kelley is an incredibly agile,
light-ish tenor, excellent in Baroque repertoire. Without any proof or
knowledge whatsoever, I suspect that Aldridge wrote the music for Eddie
with Kelley in mind, so suited is it to the things he does best, including
chains of fast runs. What distinguishes both Rideout and Kelley, however,
is their ability as singing actors. As I say, these are the only two characters
I cared about, and to a large part that empathy came from the people who
Incidentally, this opera, completed in its full version in 2005 (at least,
that's the publisher's copyright date) and given in a reduced 2007 version,
has been issued as part of Naxos's "American Opera Classics" series.
Apparently, it takes only six years to become a classic.