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Thursday, March 11, 2010

‘Elmer Gantry’ Comes to Town

The Florentine Opera’s modern classic

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Many contemporary composers fail to realize that opera is not a play with music or a score for a film, but a hybrid drama usingthe full potential of the human voice to ignite emotions within the musical score that would otherwise remain unrealized. On the other hand, a libretto unsubstantiated by a distinctive score,which ignores or minimizes its interdependence with the vocal line, is one of the many pitfalls of contemporary opera. The plot should serve only as a platform allowing therange of vocal expression to expand upon emotions thestory alone cannot convey. Most great operas originate in the orchestra pit.

Elmer Gantry, a recent work with musicby Robert Aldridge and libretto by Herschel Garfein, has avoided many of these pitfalls. By touching all bases, including moments ofVerdian operatic grandeur, they have produced an appealing work in styles ranging all the way from the infectious melodic beat of a Broadway musical to the more subtle harmonies of Gershwin, Copland or Barber—with some Puccini-like lyricism thrown in for good measure. Elmer Gantry is a full-bodied contemporary operatic achievement with an exciting, richly dramatic, uplifting score.

The Sinclair Lewis novel has been simplified to a love story between the opportunistic huckster Elmer Gantry and the devout evangelist Sharon Falconer set against a riveting regional background of Southern tent-style revivalism. It’s important for the doubtfulreader to note that the compositional milieu is of boisterous early Americana, yetthe beautiful score never sounds piecemeal or fragmented. Nor is the music dissonant or pretentiously avant-garde. Elmer Gantry is first and last a lyric opera.The gospel interludes are original compositions giving the work a solid enervating punch, never hokey with artificial knee-bending hymnal piety, but brilliantly conceived, sophisticated music straddling satire and sentiment.

Listening to this new score for the first time, one is struck by its immediacy and the rich inventiveness of its melodic pull. It doesn’t sound like an opera at first, but as reachable as a sophisticated Broadway musical—until one picks up on the polyphonic complexity and the full-bodied orchestral magnitude to which we have become accustomed in the great operas. Ensemble pieces range from dramatic but subtly scored ensembles,such as Elmer’s and Sharon’s first major arias, to complex groupings of trios, duets and even an octet supported by rousing group interactions, not unlike Rossini. A brass band is used in some revival scenes, but the score never loses its arching dramatic unity.

Listening to Elmer Gantry on CD without plot summary, it becomes apparent that the music remains self-contained, carrying its own impact, even without references to plot specifics, creating a compelling emotional aura strongly suggesting the potential impact that a good stage presentation might achieve.

Yet Gantry’s great moments never seem to diminish as the story progresses toward its poignant conclusion. A beautiful love duet opens the second act, which doesn’t prevent Elmer from continuing his con-job preacher efforts along with Sharon’s more sincere commitment. Librettist Garfein explains, “We were determined to be true to [Sinclair Lewis’] biting satire of religious wrongdoing but at the same time to dramatize the underlying, deeply moving power of American religion itself. We resolved to bring audiences to the heights of both folly and glory within a single evening—sometimes within a single moment.”

Yet, the overall effect of Elmer Gantry is not that of a social or topical musical dissertation but, like all successful operas, a unified musical invention, creating its own unique, engrossing aural experience.

The final act is very impressive. Sharon’s faith in her tabernacle is too great and we feel early on that Elmer’s marriage proposal will not work out. A great revival scene in the new tabernacle, magnificently scored, reaches fever pitch as Sharon again asserts her undying faith in a stunning musical exclamation that would have done Turandotproud. A great fire interrupts the proceedings, concluding in Elmer’s efforts to save Sharon, still torn between her love for Elmer and her curious bent for martyrdom. Elmer, however, will remain a self-serving survivor and behave accordingly.

The Florentine Opera’s Midwest premiere of Elmer Gantry will feature baritone Keith Phares, a terrific Elmer on discwith other original cast members from the opera’s Nashville debut. Florentine General Director William Florescu views the project as another in the “Florentine’s evolution as an initiator of innovative productions.” Certainly, Elmer Gantry makes a strong case for moving beyond the continuous recycling of the standard repertoire. TheNew York Times hailed itas “an operatic miracle.” Indeed, it’s quite a gem.

The Florentine Opera presents Elmer Gantry March 19 and March 21 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.