ALDRIDGE: Elmer Gantry (2007).
Keith Phares (Elmer Gantry); Patricia Risley (Sharon Falconer); Vale Rideout (Frank Shallard); Frank Kelley (Eddie Fislinger); Heather Buck (Lulu Baines); Florentine Opera Company & Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/William Boggs.
Naxos 8.669032-33 TT: 141:38.

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 operas 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 that illuminates 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. Eddie 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 played them.

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.

S.G.S. (October 2011)