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Mixed Results for Florentine Opera’s ‘Elmer Gantry’

Mar. 24, 2010
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Last weekend Florentine Opera presented Elmer Gantry, a new opera based on the Sinclair Lewis novel premiered in Nashville in 2007. This venture into Americana is more related to mid-20th-century American opera (Susannah, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Regina) than contemporary fare. It has an inescapably dated feeling.

Robert Aldridge’s score is best delivered not onstage but in the orchestra, with vivid and colorful writing. His vocal writing isn’t bad, but pales in comparison and too often does not capture characterization in the music. Two of the central roles, the title character and a charismatic female minister, fail to establish character with strong individuality, through no fault of the performers. Aldridge resorts totoo manychoral scenes of down-home hymns and white spirituals, lending more atmosphere than story-line development. The chorus claps more often than not; it’s the clap-happiest opera I’ve ever seen. The most effective theatrical music comes in a comic scene for a vengeful character tenor, a sex scene with a soprano singing high notes of ecstasy, an aria of earnest religious doubt, and the final long choral scene, sung by a congregation trapped (rather unbelievably) in a burning tabernacle.

Herschel Garfein’s libretto is episodic to a fault, attempting to congeal a sprawling novel into short scenes. (In this way it seems especially modeled after Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.) But this progression of scenes does not add up to accumulated effect, especially in the first act.

It’s not a bad opera, fairly harmless, just not particularly distinguished. To be fair, some in the audience liked it more than I did, although some left at intermission. The production was largely imported from Nashville Opera. Any weaknesses were in the piece itself, and not the cast or production. Keith Phares made what he could of Elmer. Heather Buck’s creamy high notes were the vocal highlight. Patricia Risley struggled to make something of a character that needed to be more sharply written. Two minor characters got the best music and ran with it: character tenor Frank Kelley, and tenor Vale Rideout, who sings a philosophical aria questioning his faith.


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