MICHIGAN OPERA THEATRE closed its season with Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath. Librettist Michael Korie and composer Gordon’s vivid adaptation of John Steinbeck’s great American novel paints a harrowing picture of the Joad family’s struggle and pain in the ragged days of the Great Depression (seen May 11). Grapes of Wrath was originally presented in 2007 at Minnesota Opera, in three acts. In 2017, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis gave the premiere of a new two-act version of Gordon’s opera, which was the edition used in Detroit.
Mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner played Ma Joad, the emotional center of the family, with power and open-heartedness. Her early aria “(This Dead Land is) Us,” which launched the score’s most crucial melodic motives, was as warm and loving as a mother’s hug; her later “No One is Goin’” was an explosion of fire and despair. The story’s beating heart, Goeldner never faltered, her voice consistently stunning in this rare leading role for a mature mezzo-soprano.
Baritone Tobias Greenhalgh brought a virile commitment and a core of angry heat to the world- weary Tom Joad. Greenhalgh was never less than impressive, but could have responded to Gordon’s stylistic variability with jazzier ease and a softer edge at times. As Tom’s friend (and the story’s Jesus figure) Jim Casy, Geoffrey Agpalo was marvelous, with a secret smile, a twinkle in his eye and a seemingly ceilingless tenor.
The large ensemble cast was filled with heavy hitters. Effervescent soprano Deanna Breiwick was the Joads’ adult daughter Rosasharn; her husband, Connie Rivers, was sung by baritone Harry Greenleaf in a well-deserved romantic role. Tenor Michael Day brought both comic timing and sweet sincerity to the earnest, playful young Al Joad and sang like a dream. Dennis Petersen owned the stage as the stubborn Grampa Joad, with a brilliant sound and crisp diction. Mezzo- soprano Deborah Nansteel’s lush timbre gave life to the even more stubborn Granma Joad. Levi Hernandez took on Pa Joad, disguising the somewhat thankless role with his plentiful baritone and colorful musicianship. Opera veteran Jeffrey Mattsey turned Uncle John Joad’s pain into rough- hewn rage. Particularly praise belongs to tenor Hugh Russell, who never fell into caricature as the Joad’s “simple” son, Noah. With clear, rich tone, Russell sang a heartrending “I Can Be a Help,” perhaps the most beautiful aria of the opera.
Director James Robinson made clever use of stagecraft, using only what the cement-walled set and its furniture offered. Highlights include the Joad jalopy, built of benches, tables, and quilts, which took the Joads to a sunrise projected only on their faces as they arrive in California at dawn. The Joad family’s exultant “As They Promised” was echoed across the valley by the chorus, hidden beside and behind the audience. Even more astonishing was Noah’s drowning scene, accomplished with a veil of backlit muslin drawn over his head.
Gordon wrote what was needed for the characters, story, and time, deftly moving between jazz- infused and symphonic pastoral styles with keen dramatic sensitivity, all flexibly conducted by Michael Christie. The Grapes of Wrath is appropriately vast, with a scope as wide as the land it grows from, even in this shortened 2017 version. A deeply affecting tragedy of migrants for whom the world refuses to make a space, it is darkly relevant today.