The Grapes of Wrath: WRCT

Family and community permeate the heart of the new opera version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath presented by Pittsburgh Opera. The music is by CMU grad Ricky Ian Gordon and the libretto and lyrics are by Michael Korie, both of whom are best known for creating musicals. But this often compelling and impressive work most sounds and looks like genuine opera rather than something geared towards Broadway, although it has the physical ingredients characteristic of Broadway hits, an immense cast, dynamic visual effects and props, including a life-size truck.

Gordon’s sung-through score surges with drama and often with great beauty, especially in multi-voice singing such as choruses and duets. Korie’s words, which you can read in projected supertitles, contain many elemental rhymes, which sometimes read more simple and lyrical than how Gordon sets them. At the same time, clearly, Korie is attempting to maintain speech patterns of equally elemental characters rather than make their words poetic and eloquent.

So it remains up to Gordon to create eloquence, which he does magnificently. There are, of course, many times when the music in The Grapes of Wrath serves to move the story forward, being more narrative than song-like, but during the second and third acts, magnificent harmonies soar time and time again.

You may be surprised to see how much of Steinbeck’s story and Korie’s telling of it resonates today, dealing with the oppression of migrant workers, especially brought home brilliantly in the third act when workers sing in Spanish. Then too, there is the subject of people displaced and brought down by nature, akin to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Director Eric Simonson has staged it all compellingly and dramatically, finding ways to keep his large, diverse and colorful cast convincing and believable. Consequently you’ll witness disturbing drama and revelations about recent American history, about hard times, which even now loom on our horizon.

Gordon and Korie have created something memorable out of this subject, something which should be seen and heard again for how it sounds, how it looks and for what it tells us about ourselves.

– Gordon Spencer, WRCT On-air review