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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Robert Aldridge's Opera "Elmer Gantry" Gets Lively Recording

Robert Livingston Aldridge (b. 1954) has given us a substantial opera based on the Sinclair Lewis novel Elmer Gantry. William Boggs directs a new recording (Naxos 2-CD 8.669032-33) with soloists, the Florentine Opera Company (and Chorus) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

What to say about this work? In many ways musically it is ultra-conservative. It has all the earmarkings of something that might have been written in the 1930's. There is a touch of Americana in the sense that Copland's homespun nationalist strain can be heard not so much quoted from as assimilated. There's a slightly jazzy element that comes out of Gershwin. Otherwise it is highly romantic, even sentimental in its treatment of a subject that, at least when Sinclair wrote the novel, was meant to have impactful social-critical heft.

The story is set in pre-World War I small-town America. Elmer Gantry, as is clear from the beginning, is a man on the make, someone who sees the evangelical Christian revival spreading across the country as a chance to get himself ahead in life. He falls in with baptist priestess Sharon Falconer, who in the opera version at least, seems genuinely religious yet unable to recognize the plainly commercial and cynical transformation Gantry performs on her revival group. There is no space to go into details, but to me her character comes off as unconvincing.

In our world today, when right-wing evangelist groups have gained significant political clout in the United States and have great impact on the issues and policies of the United States government, the small-town shenanigans of Gantry seem tame and insignificant, especially as portrayed in the opera. He commits adultery with his old sweetheart, he raises much money for the tabernacle and uses the trappings of born-again Christian ideology for the accumulation of wealth. This may have seemed shocking to a 1920's small-town America but we have seen far worse since.

The music? There are effective moments of pastoral-hymn-folk-lyrical melody and they contrast perplexingly sometimes with the plot--when Gantry the cynical unbeliever declares his love for the incredibly gullible Falconer, when a parable of impending apocalyptic disaster is taken up in act two while the music expresses a kind of wistful sentimentality, in the course of the revival meeting, often at the height of Gantry's machinations.

The revival music can also take a kind of quasi-gospel, trite post-Gershwin "negro" jazziness, which historically is not accurate and sounds incredibly dated to boot. Other times it has a spiritedness that appeals. There are times when the opera comes off as a slightly highbrow version of a cornball small-town musical like The Music Man, complete with a sort of barbershop quartet's vision of nostalgic Americana. This is the kind of music that may hit a reverberant chord in the smaller centers of culture throughout the US today. And I am happy for the pleasure it may give many people. It disturbs me though that we can be made to feel nostalgia for the days when manipulative Gantries merely wanted to found a local ministry built on lies and deceit, and only make a million or two. Gantry was meant by Sinclair to personify an evil in America. The opera seems to like the fellow, just a little bit. I don't.

Nevertheless, from a musical point of view there are things that appeal and the dramatic climax of the last act is well wrought. It is very much a backward looking work, culturally, socially and musically. But it is a full-blown opera with plenty of crowd scenes, tender arias, duets, quartets and all the rest of what grand opera traditionally has had. And the performance seems quite good.

I don't believe this is the sort of thing that I would hold up as a model of what American opera is today. It's what American opera might have been 100 years ago, perhaps. Nevertheless, if it enjoys success, I am happy for the composer.

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