The Grapes of Wrath: American Record Guide, 2009

Retelling the American literary classic The Grapes of Wrath as an opera was an epic collaboration between composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie. The Pittsburgh Opera presented their revision of the work, which was premiered by the Minnesota Opera two years ago (May/June 2007).

Korie’s poetic libretto stays close to its source, appropriating Steinbeck’s terse rhythms and narrative scope. Neither Steinbeck’s novel nor Korie’s libretto can single out a character’s voice for narrative unity, because the main "character" in the story is an eightmember family unit. This is a complex storytelling device in literature and a monumental undertaking in an opera. Korie’s libretto and Gordon’s score follow the emotional transitions among the family members, making the family’s ensemble story greater than the sum of its individual characters.

Elizabeth Bishop was stellar in the role of Ma Joad, carrying the opera’s drama through its first two acts. Especially in her character’s defining aria, ‘Us’, she captured Ma Joad’s expansive range. She guided the audience through Ma’s poignant reminiscences of the family’s better days and her resignation to their current plight, and also conveyed the resoluteness of her spirit as she and her family embark on their migration to California.

Bishop’s lilting upper register hauntingly embellished Noah’s (Andrew Wilkoske) drowning aria, a poetically licensed reading of Noah’s departure from the family in Steinbeck’s original text. This most emotionally provocative scene in the opera, the Act II conclusion, was also the most musically abstract and visually stunning moment. Filling his bucket with "ballast"–Korie’s artful reference to younger brother Al’s earlier complaint about Noah’s role in the family–Wilkowske’s clear baritone portrayed the naked pathos of this moment and revealed that Noah’s character is not as onedimensional as the family (or the audience) had assumed. Visually reminiscent of the climactic scene in the movie version of The Death of Klinghoffer, Noah’s limp body appeared to be floating in water, hovering above Bishop during her tender lullaby to innocence. The visual and lyrical symbolism in the second act’s concluding scene is not complex, but its meanings were artfully and powerfully conveyed.

In the final act, while Bishop’s character became more and more concerned with the pragmatic details (and futility) of keeping the family together, Danielle Pastin’s character, Rosasharn, gradually emerged as the emotional center of the opera’s final scenes. The power of Pastin’s role culminated with her portrayal of the novel-opera’s ending, where Rosasharn gives her stillborn baby’s milk to a starving man. In this scene with the nursing man, Pastin’s clear soprano lyrically summarized the opera’s narrative arc, conveying the inherent optimism of the Joad family–a trait that Gordon’s score always brought to the surface.

From start to finish, conductor Richard Buckley maintained excellent pacing, finding appropriate ebb and flow moments for the three-hour work. But even with the subtle amplification supplied for the main characters, the orchestra struggled to balance with some of the voices, especially Craig Verm’s (Tom Joad).

– Burkhardt Reiter, American Record Guide, March/April 2009