Tulsa, OK — While there are many premieres at opera companies nowadays, few American operas get second or third performances. Elmer Gantry, by composer Robert Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein, is one such opera. Conceived decades earlier, it premiered in 2007 at the Nashville Opera. The Florentine Opera in Milwaukee gave it a second performance, and its only recording, in 2010. Now, here it is in a stunning production at Tulsa Opera. In operaland, it is quite remarkable to have so many performances in such a short time. Surely, performances by major companies are in the offing.
When you think of Elmer Gantry, it is because of the dramatic 1960 movie with Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons. The novel by Sinclair Lewis, America’s first Nobel Laureate for literature (1930), is now rarely discussed or known, as are his other novels. Lewis loved to write about hypocrites and the feckless former jock, Elmer Gantry, who bangs through his life from one accidental career to another leaving a burned wreckage behind him (literally), is the primary paradigm of the novelist’s predilections.
Of course, the religious leaders in 1927, prone to produce such evangelistic entertainers, had a tizzy and the book was generally banned—a sure path to fame. The 1960 movie shaved off some of the more distasteful personal failings of the protagonist. The opera, as the art form is wont to do, makes him more of a charming rascal than Sinclair’s drunken, womanizing and phony penny-ante preacher.
In the Tulsa production, Keith Phares plays Gantry, the golden guy you knew in high school; the fetching football favorite who would always land on his feet because of his manly magnetism and mastery of malarkey. (Phares was Gantry in the aforementioned Florentine opera production.) His lyric baritone easily negotiated this role, which makes both vocal and dramatic demands. If anything, his best-friend boyishness, especially seen in his interactions with his roommate, Frank, make it hard to believe his more destructive traits. But vocally, you could hardly do better than Phares’ virile and rich baritone.
His undoing comes when he meets the celebrated evangelist Sharon Falconer, a character based on Aimee Semple McPherson, a real-life evangelist and faith healer who, at one time, held the fascination of the world. As with her operatic counterpart, who succumbs to Gantry’s charms and begins an affair, rumors of such behavior also swirled around McPherson.
As Falconer, mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez deals fairly well with the difficulty of being both a woman and a religious icon (one that also plagued McPherson). Vocally, she is marvelous and there is a lot of detail in her performance. The final scene, with her on fire in her burning temple, was both horrific and entrancing to watch as her life and her life’s monument were both destroyed in the same conflagration.
The standout in the production was tenor Matthew DiBattista as Eddie, husband of Lulu, one of Gantry’s earlier conquests. He brings the first act to a fire-breathing and scenery-chewing close with his musical tantrum, thrown when his hatred and envy of gadgetry becomes overwhelming and he cracks. He was absolutely terrific, from his vibrant tenor voice to his manic laughter.
The pompous, harrumphing Reverend Baines, father of Lulu, was perfectly portrayed by Peter Strummer. Of all of the cast, he most fully inhabited his character. Lulu was sung by soprano Elizabeth Fischborn. She is a member of the Tulsa opera’s apprentice program and merits a substantial career. Bass Jeremy Miller, a Tulsa native, was also outstanding as T.J. Rigg, the businessman who funded Falconer’s grand scheme to build a mighty temple. There are few singers with a real bass voice and Milner’s is certainly in that category. He is already being trained and schooled to take over the big roles that are so difficult to cast. For example, this past season he was the cover singer for the monster role of Hagen in the Seattle Opera’s Ring Cycle, something for which that organization is famous.
This production was designed for the Florentine Opera. Some of it is vacant, but effective. Other scenes, such as the burning of the temple, are spectacular.
Artistic director Kostis Protopapas is doing wonders in Tulsa since he was promoted from Associate Conductor and Chorusmaster. His performance was perfectly paced and he was always on top of the text—being right with the singers throughout. In the big moments, he was able to keep the orchestra at a level that was just below the stage but still forceful enough to give them the support they need in such his drama moments. The orchestra also did a fine job and was as responsive to their leader as any regional opera orchestra in the country.
Director Kristine McIntyre kept the action under control and played up the interpersonal relationships of Sinclair’s disparate group of characters.
The opera itself is written in a neo-romantic musical language, with the accent on the “neo” part. It certainly sounds like it was written recently and not some rediscovered piece of late-romantic chromaticism. On the contrary, Aldridge steeps the flavor of gospel music into his musical idiom, as befits an opera about the kind of preachers we’ve seen on television for several decades now. His love duet between Gantry and Falconer is particularly moving, especially in the hands of Phares and Chavez, two rich and dark voices. The final scene, with fire burning everything, is another standout moment.
If there is a criticism, it is that the opera is too much of a good thing. There are no “ordinary” moments—it is all lush and beautiful writing, no matter what the situation. Thus, when such music is required, there is nothing to hold as contrast. Big moments follow each other like waves of a restless ocean.
Still, it is easy to see why Aldridge’s opera has had performances after its premiere. This is a situation that evades most new operas and speaks well for its future. Like Gantry himself, it should find a way to keep moving on to the next phase of its life.