Elmer Gantry review–short

Robert Livingston Aldridge’s ELMER GANTRY
and some other American Operas
on CD and DVD
by Corliss Phillabaum
Boggs: Phares, Risley, Rideout, Kelley, Buck (Florentine Opera, 2010) (Naxos) (2:21:38)
This live recording of Elmer Gantry derives from the highly successful 2010 Florentine
Opera production and features four members of the Nashville Opera world premiere, Keith
Phares in the title role, Vale Rideout as Frank Shallard, Frank Kelley as Eddie Fislinger, and
conductor William Boggs. The recording was the first commercially issued Florentine Opera
production and won two Grammy Awards.
The recording presents this richly dramatic opera vividly. The recording balance is
excellent. The fine playing of the Milwaukee Symphony is strongly present while still letting the
singers’ voices come through clearly–a balance, which also reflects the composer’s skillful
scoring. The cast is excellent with Keith Phares a commanding presence in the title role, which
he sings with a beautifully focused baritone while projecting the text clearly. Soprano Patricia
Risley captures the visionary quality of Sharon Falconer and rises to the challenge of the final
scene. Tenor Frank Kelley is a colorful Eddie Fislinger and tenor Vale Rideout is effective as
Frank Shallard, although he is somewhat stretched vocally by the demanding aria which ends
Act One.
The album is well-produced with excellent notes and a full libretto, although as is
common today, the typeface is tiny. Highly recommended.
Romey: Yunus, Zaballa, Okell, Zawisza (University of Minnesota, 2012) (Naxos) (:51:23)
Although Parables was originally written for concert performance, this DVD presents a
staged version produced by forces from the University of Minnesota with the active cooperation
of composer Robert Livingston Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein. Written for four
soloists, large chorus and orchestra, Parables explores elements of commonality among three
monotheistic traditions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as elements which stand in the
way of a reconciliation among them. Sections of the work address concerns common to all
humanity while the major sections focus on parables which all share to some degree. Other
passages highlight the hostilities among the three traditions, which grow out of embedded
doctrines, particularly the basic premise of each that it is the only true faith.
In this staged version the orchestral and choral forces surround the stage area on risers
and the large orchestra is in the pit. The soloists, each of whom is a spokesperson for one of the
traditions, appear on high pulpits on the periphery and occasionally move into the open central
space used by the dancers. A variety of projected images appear at the rear. The choreography
expresses the general content of the material and also presents the action of each parable, joined
at times by the soloists. The parables, particularly Job and Ibrahim and Ismail/Abraham and
Isaac, present some of the most extreme demands of their traditions . Interjections from the
soloists frequently challenge the ideas being presented. In the end no solution is offered but a
challenge is issued:
“Faith must be stripped of triumph.
Belief must not defeat belief.
When faith is stripped of triumph
We will hear the God of Others speak.”
In the final ensemble all the forces join in an open-ended acknowledgment that:
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard
What waits for us
Since the beginning of time
For no eye has seen
What waits for us
What waits.”
Librettist Herschel Garfein has drawn his texts from writings of all three traditions, and
they are delivered both in English and in the original languages. As in Elmer Gantry, Robert
Aldridge’s music is dramatic and powerful and makes full use of the capabilities of his large
forces. The professional soloists sing expressively and the augmented University of Minnesota
chorus not only sings with rich tone and fine diction, but performs the entire complex
multilingual choral part from memory–very impressive! The orchestra under Kathy Saltzman
Romey is equally fine and the good sound and vivid video presentation do full justice to an
impressive and challenging work.
In conjunction with the original Florentine Opera production of Elmer Gantry I reviewed
recordings of several other American operas, which are also based on novels. My updated
discussions of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Adamo’s Little Women, and Gordon’s The Grapes of
Wrath are available at www.florentineopera.org, as are my discussions of recordings of the
operas of Carlisle Floyd, whose Wuthering Heights was presented by Florentine Opera in
Elmer Gantry features two central characters, who are, for better or worse, charismatic,
as have numerous operas throughout the history of the form. My comments on DVD versions of
three such American operas are available in the full-length version of this article on the
Florentine website. The operas discussed there are Doctor Atomic by John Adams, Moby-Dick
by Jake Heggie and Lizzie Borden by Jack Beeson.