The Grapes of Wrath: Opera News, 8 November 2008

There have been composers who wrote operas scaled down for the Broadway stage – notably Gian-Carlo Menotti and, arguably, Stephen Sondheim. In The Grapes of Wrath, Ricky Ian Gordon has created the reverse – a Broadway musical pumped up for the opera house – and such an assessment is in no way meant to trivialize his accomplishment.

Gordon’s musical incarnation of John Steinbeck’s novel, given its premiere at Minnesota Opera in February 2007, is an epic of Wagnerian proportions. Pittsburgh Opera’s premiere of a significantly revised version, seen on November 15, was half an hour shorter than the original: the Pittsburgh Grapes lasted three hours and thirty minutes (counting two short intermissions) – to the minute avoiding overtime according to union regulations.

The cast includes twenty-five principals and a big chorus. The orchestration, by the composer in collaboration with Bruce Coughlin, is large, heavy and unusual in makeup. (Among other things, it requires a virtuoso harmonica player.) With all the principals wearing body mikes and text visible in supertitles, the words were intelligible and the vocal lines soared. Conductor Richard Buckley, along with sound engineer Christopher M. Evans, worked miracles in maintaining balance. In the printed program, however, company general director Christopher Hahn made the point that "we do not plan to use amplification in the future for mainstream opera repertoire."

The entire production, beginning with Allen Moyer’s excellent set and Karen Kopischke’s costumes, was complex, but Gordon’s score maintained a pop/folk/Broadway directness that carried an emotional impact. Gordon’s idiom is founded in American musical theater, but he amalgamates it successfully with Puccini and Strauss, Copland and Bernstein, and still projects a profile that is distinctly his own. There’s a barbershop quartet that might fit into Guys and Dolls; a comic moment in which children discover modern plumbing recalls Street Scene. There are also arias and duets that might pass for a discarded page or two from La Fanciulla del West or Il Trittico.

For the most part the composer and librettist Michael Korie carry off their lofty ambitions. Act I is still too long, and many people left at the first intermission. That’s too bad, because thanks to brilliant staging by Eric Simonson and choreography by Doug Varone, the subsequent action moves swiftly and keeps the viewer riveted on the characters. The suicide scene of mentally challenged Noah Joad, an addition to Steinbeck, is a masterpiece of stagecraft, spectacularly realized by Robert Wierzel’s lighting and Wendall K. Harrington’s video design. It also allows Act II to end with the opera’s most beautiful and excerptable moment – Ma Joad’s flashback lullaby to the infant Noah of her memories. Korie’s careful turns of phrase and expansions of Steinbeck’s plot – including a three-generation flashback depicting the growth of greed in a rich farming family – give the work an unfortunate timeliness for today’s economic downturn.

Dominating the action with her strong presence and plummy mezzo sound was Elizabeth Bishop as Ma Joad, the family pillar who represents stability. Danielle Pastin, a first-year Opera Center participant, made her mark as the beleaguered Rosasharn, with a lovely demeanor and irresistible creamy timbre. Their Act III duet was a gorgeous blend.

Among the men, baritone Craig Verm’s Tom Joad combined Broadway leading-man looks with a voice in the Alfred Drake–John Raitt tradition. Sean Panikkar’s ringing tenor was of genuine operatic quality, and his stage savvy brought to life the dilemma of Jim Casey, a preacher who has lost his faith, while Jason Karn’s lightweight tenor was just right for the teenaged brother Al.

Several artists were recruited from the original Minnesota cast – Anna Jablonski (Mae the Waitress), Robert Orth (Uncle John), Peter Halverson (Pa Joad), Andrew Wilkowski (Noah) and Jesse Blumberg (Connie). Anna Singer and Joseph Frank gave colorful Ma and Pa Kettle caricatures as the grandparents.

– Robert Croan, Opera News, 8 November 2008