The Grapes of Wrath: Seen and Heard

Ricky Ian Gordon, The Grapes of Wrath: (2007, world premiere) Libretto by Michael Korie, based on the novel by John Steinbeck, The Minnesota Opera, Grant Gershon (conductor), Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Original stage direction and dramaturgy by Eric Simonson

Orchestrations by Ricky Ian Gordon and Bruce Coughlin

Co-commissioned by The Minnesota Opera and Utah Symphony & Opera.

Imagine an Oklahoma sky, clouds hypnotically drifting by, towering over rows of yellow and green cornstalks below. Put this on high-definition television and you have an idea of Allen Moyer’s opening set for The Grapes of Wrath, which arrestingly telegraphed the novel’s initial optimism. But in the rear of the stage one could already glimpse a sober metal catwalk on three sides, and behind that, the back wall covered with rusted, corrugated steel. As the corn dies, the idyllic sky disappears, and the Joads’ misfortunes begin, the wall’s lower half becomes an ever-changing panorama of cracked brown earth, frightening dust storms or Orwellian Depression-era housing, all evoked with crystal-clear rear projection video. I know some opera-lovers deplore the use of this technology ("Just build the sets!") but this particular novel would require perhaps twenty locales to capture its range, and Moyer came up with a creative and satisfying way of showing the mounting tides of grim desolation as a Depression-era family finds itself up against monumental forces out of its control. Later an authentic 1929 truck, complete with a busted taillight, serves as a kind of sad lifeboat, the entire Joad family clinging to all sides. Kärin Kopischke’s grim costumes seem so right, so natural that they virtually fade into the production, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel captures every bit of darkness, dust-filled day and (sometimes) moonlit night.

It is a bit surprising that this epic has taken so long to reach the operatic stage, but the Steinbeck estate has rebuffed many composers over the years until Ricky Ian Gordon was granted the rights, and indeed he might be the ideal man for this daunting job. Gordon’s language, a sort of opera-Broadway hybrid, seems rooted in Bernstein, Copland, and Carlisle Floyd, with some American musical conventions peeking through now and then. Especially in Act I, a handful of the scenes seemed to have a more conventional Broadway structure, with quick musical "wrap-ups" that seem unashamedly designed to cue applause, rather than phrases that find unexpected endings. But much of the time his choices are overwhelmingly effective, and his use of American popular music neatly parallels the story (such as a square dance, that also shows off the expertise of choreographer Doug Varone). Stirring set pieces involve the entire group, such as the opening, "The Last Time There Was Rain," with its depiction of endless dust:

"In the pitch plack nights

not a star shone through!

Not a light bulb lit

more’n a yard or two!

And when dawn would break,

there would be no day,

just a dull red glow behind the gray…"

Act II opens in a diner along Route 66, where a chorus of waitresses (think The Andrews Sisters) cheerily berate "Okies" who want handouts, versus the truck drivers who are their best customers. Later the Joads cross the Mojave Desert, eventually reaching the Endicott Canneries, before finding themselves mired in Hooterville, a depressing shantytown whose mirage of opportunity quickly evaporates. A fire destroys much of the plum crop, the pregnant Rosasharn is abandoned by her husband, a woman is shot and a key character kills himself. The final act is played out first in the white porcelain of a washroom in a government settlement camp, as the final sequence of events rain down on the Joads, pelting them much like the relentless storms throughout the opera.

Michael Korie’s libretto sifts through Steinbeck’s 400-plus pages and emerges with a powerfully literate story. If now and then some decisions may disorient those following the book, Korie has exercised his prerogative to translate the printed page in search of dramatic coherence and intensity. In the novel, Noah’s demise is somewhat ambiguous, but Korie gives him one of the opera’s most haunting scenes, vividly conceived by director Eric Simonson. A young Ma Joad (outstandingly portrayed by Deanne Meek) appears and sings about the infant Noah: "No innocence like the dream of a simple child…no innocence like a child with a simple dream." As Meek is center stage, floating high above her is the adult Noah (achingly acted and sung by Andrew Wilkowske) carrying a heavy bucket of rocks. Against a backdrop of darkly lapping water, as the song reaches its piercing climax, his hands slowly release the bucket and he drowns himself.

Among the outstanding vocal talent on display at the Ordway Center, Brian Leerhuber was indomitable as Tom Joad, whose famous speech after he emerges from hiding has been transformed into an appropriately monumental ode, ending with:

"…In prison cells an’ holdin’ pens

my back ag’inst a wall.

By firin’ squad, by hangin’ tree,

electric chair an’ all…

I’ll be there,

but I won’t fear it

becuz my spirit be free.

I’ll be there

like you is always for me.

I’ll be there, I’ll be there.

You’ll see."

He was matched by Meek’s searing Ma Joad, whose soaring lines were riveting and painful without becoming harsh, and she was nicely paired with Peter Halverson’s forceful Pa, singing with increasing desperation. As the lapsed preacher, Jim Casy, Roger Honeywell had many moving moments, climaxing with "Things Turn Around," his sad duet with Tom in Act III. Joshua Kohl was very effective as Noah’s brother Al, whose stinging comments ignite more tragedy. Dan Dressen made a ruggedly convincing Grampa, with veteran Rosalind Elias offering a nuanced Granma, both sadly exiting too soon.

In another slight departure from the book, Rosasharn virtually anchored the story, and Kelly Kaduce’s voice was a pleasure – albeit a heartbreaking one – in every scene in which she appeared. As Connie, who abandons her, Jesse Blumberg used his strong baritone to make the most of the pathos. Robert Orth made a stern Uncle John, powerfully leading the cast in one of the final gripping scenes when Rosasharn’s dead child is found. An excellent small ensemble featured Theodore Chletsos, Anna Jablonski, Kelly Markgraf, Gregory Pearson and Karin Wolverton.

Grant Gershon, renowned for his work with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, moved through the score with as much swiftness and focus as possible, making the long evening seem less so. Occasionally balance problems made one glad for the surtitles, but it was hard to tell whether the hall itself, or some discreet amplification were minor culprits. (I thought the two excellent children, Henry Bushnell and Maeve Moynihan, were gently, appropriately miked to prevent them from having to scream.) But Gershon never called attention to his interpretation, and elicited bravura work from everyone onstage, as well as the gleaming Minnesota Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

At four hours long, including two intermissions, the work might be tightened just a bit. The cannery scene in Act II, funny as it is, seems to be handing the audience some humor to offset the relentless tread, the growing clouds of misfortune. Steinbeck doesn’t flinch in telling a tough story, and I think the overall impact might be that much greater without any attempt to ameliorate the nihilistic message. The final devastating scene, which the film version carefully sidestepped, is faithful to the book, and unfurled with haunting immediacy by Ms. Kaduce. An implacable universe tosses Rosasharn an unexpected opportunity to save someone else, in a way she could never imagine.

– Bruce Hodges, Seen and Heard