October 20, 2011


Robert Aldridge: Elmer Gantry. Keith Phares, Patricia Risley, Vale Rideout, Frank Kelley, Heather Buck; Florentine Opera Chorus, Florentine Opera Company and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Boggs. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Handel: Arias and Duos. Karina Gauvin, soprano; Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis. Naïve. $16.99

Rachmaninoff: The Bells; Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kijé Suite; Bernstein: Candide Overture. Sheila Armstrong, soprano; Robert Tear, tenor; John Shirley-Quirk, bass-baritone; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by André Previn. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

     Fans of vocal music not only have many composers and forms to choose from, but also can pick works that, because they were written in different time periods, use the voice in many different ways and with many different effects. Robert Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry, a 2007 opera based on Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 novel of the same name, is rather charmingly old-fashioned despite its fairly modern tonal language. The music is accessible; the libretto, by Herschel Garfein, wisely whittles down Lewis’ sprawling story of faith, its lack and its manipulation to focus on the love story between Elmer and evangelist Sharon Falconer; the tragic climax, taken from the book, is well played but not overplayed; there is the sort of top-notch entry aria (Sharon’s) that so many operas ought to have but so many lack; and the music’s blend of hymns, marches, dances and gospel songs is appropriate and almost (but not quite) on the verge of being overdone. Elmer Gantry is not grand opera at the level of Porgy and Bess, but it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as The Ballad of Baby Doe, and that is certainly high praise. The performers are all well-suited to their roles, with the crucial singers, Sharon (Patricia Risley) and Elmer (Keith Phares), handling themselves particularly well. The chorus offers good, solid singing, although perhaps not very inspired; and the orchestral forces are at about that same level – very good but a bit below top-notch. Nevertheless, this is a highly successful production of one of the few American operas that actually may remain in the repertoire: it was first performed by Nashville Opera, then at Montclair State University, then by the Florentine Opera Company in the performance heard on Naxos; and it has since been performed at the University of Minnesota as well. That is an impressive record, although none of the venues really qualifies as big-name. Listeners interested in a modern retelling of a very American story that continues to have resonance at a time when fundamentalist religion is as big an element in politics as ever will find Elmer Gantry of considerable interest. The music itself is perhaps less so – certainly it breaks no new ground and sounds at times more like a series of Broadway show tunes than a sequence of operatic arias and choruses. But this music goes with and tells this particular story with considerable flair, and Elmer Gantry is certainly worth a hearing. Or several.

     Much of the music of Handel on a new Naïve CD is far, far better known. The disc, called “Streams of Pleasure,” certainly provides enjoyment, but it is more of a display piece for Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux than a recording for Handel’s sake. The CD’s title comes from “Streams of Pleasure Ever Flowing” from Theodora, one of the excerpts here, and there are other waterways as well: “Crystal Streams in Murmurs Flowing” from Susanna and “Our Limpid Streams with Freedom Flow” from Joshua. Aside from the watery connection, there is no very strong relationship among these pieces, except to the extent that Handel tended to revisit similar themes again and again: “Destructive War” and “Great Victor, at Your Feet I Bow” from Belshazzar, for example, plus “From This Dread Scene” from Judas Maccabaeus. Other operas represented here are Alexander Balus, Joseph and His Brethren, Solomon and Hercules. The selections are offered in no particular order, but all are well sung by the soloist (or soloists, as the case may be), and Il Complesso Barocco under Alan Curtis provides fine, sensitive and historically informed accompaniment.

     There is history of a different sort in the ICA Classics DVD release of a BBC archival recording of performances by the London Symphony Orchestra under André Previn. This is only a one-hour DVD, without any bonus material, and is thus clearly intended for Previn fanciers, since the performances from the 1970s are quite good but certainly not must-haves. Rachmaninoff’s The Bells is of special interest because of the quality of the three soloists: this work, recorded at its first-ever BBC Proms performance (1973), is scarcely a staple of the concert hall, and when it is performed, it rarely gets the combined excellence of vocal quality that it receives here. This choral symphony, based on a translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name, is intimately tied to Rachmaninoff’s onetime mentor, Tchaikovsky, who had been long dead when The Bells was written in 1913. Rachmaninoff actually wrote the work at a desk that Tchaikovsky had also used to compose, and the piece has many parallels to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. Yet it is clearly a Rachmaninoff work, with its lush orchestration and recurrent Dies Irae motif, and Previn leads it with considerable gusto. Prokofiev’s much less weighty Lieutenant Kijé Suite, recorded in 1977, gets an appropriately light treatment and is very nicely played, while Bernstein’s Candide Overture, which appears at the end of the DVD (a rather odd placement), is its usual bright and brassy self in a performance from 1971. Previn (born 1929) has developed as a conductor over the years, and these more-than-30-year-old performances should not be taken to represent his last word on any of this music. But listeners interested in his conducting in an earlier era, or simply in further evidence of Previn’s versatility, will enjoy hearing these versions and watching Previn extract what he wishes from the music and musicians.

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