|The Joad family, piled into a jalopy truck, heads for California.|
So it's more than for the sake of life support for Ricky Ian Gordon's 2007 opera that a new version, shortened and more focused on the central characters, is on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' current season in its home at Webster University in suburban St. Louis.
Linked indelibly to Michael Korie's resonant libretto, the work deserves wide circulation. In the revision, the cast remains huge, and demands on the singers are unrelenting and must be smoothly joined. The perseverance amid the growing desperation of displaced farmers has to remain uppermost, relieved by a few tender or comical lines and episodes.
Seen at a matinee Saturday, "The Grapes of Wrath" takes the gritty realism of Steinbeck's story seriously and minutely as it concentrates on the Joad family of Oklahoma, trekking westward to California with many others from the Dust Bowl. The staging fans out from the libretto's cinematic succession of brief scenes to the social panorama of uprooted Okies, betrayed by misleading promises of work designed to drive down the cost of their labor, all reasonable ambition suppressed by growers and henchmen. Continued privation is the refugees' lot as their visions of life in an earthly paradise are destroyed like surplus fruit in lush valley orchards.
|Ma Joad (standing left) sings of the devastating drought in opera's first scene.|
There are touches of symbolic action and satire that add variety to this essential style. After the first-scene chorus lamenting the drought, most of the soup-kitchen diners blow on their bowls as if to cool the soup. Dust rises up in scattered bursts.
Shortly thereafter, in a complicated chorus reflecting the heartless eviction of farm families by the powers that be, a row of female bank tellers rotely describe their jobs with identical piggy banks lined up in front of them.
Here the short line lengths and emphatic rhythms elicit from Gordon a four-note motif that recalls Beethoven's Fifth. It suggests the distancing effect of decisions that are driving the Okies off their land, expressed by the repeated "It's not my fault." Impersonal fate is evoked, as in Beethoven's offhand remark (sometimes taken too seriously) that his famous motif represented "fate knocking at the door."
Normally, Gordon's music favors a billowing arioso style, with the orchestra under Christopher Allen's precise direction supporting the singers with sometimes crunchy harmonies (the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is in the pit). Vernacular music is brought into play where appropriate: a diner waitress' song (sung with sassy gusto by Jennifer Panara), contrasting the hapless Okies with good-tipping truck drivers, has a tidy Tin Pan Alley verve.
There are a couple of songs set comfortably in ragtime form, and the lapsed
|Connie and Rosasharn have dreams of stable family life.|
As the expectant Rosasharn, Deanna Brewick performed with soaring honesty some of the opera's most heart-wrenching music. In the Gordon-Korie interpretation, the character who frets so often in Steinbeck's novel has more prominent nobility, somewhat undercut by her persistent all-American materialism. But her final act, one of the best-known endings in American fiction, lifts her up indelibly in the opera as well.
It would be hard to improve on the steely resolve and maternal solicitude of Katharine Goeldner's Ma Joad. She looked totally capable of braining her fractious son Al (Michael Day) with a bucket, yet she's also the expedition's bedrock of compassion and the voice for family unity. She is given a moving catalogue aria in the first act that blends both material and spiritual values as part of the Okies' identity: "Years is us," she sings, but so are "buckets, ropes, and canvas," a copy of Pilgrim's Progress, sewing odds and ends. The aria's themes are later echoed in chorus, as the hopeful exiles proclaim that Route 66 is "us," too.
|Casy (Geoffrey Agpalo) and Tom (Tobias Greenhalgh) chew the fat.|
Levi Hernandez played Pa Joad as a force almost as stalwart as his wife, yet inevitably in her shadow. Robert Orth presented his usual vivid take on an oddball character — the anxious, fitfully solicitous but mainly self-absorbed Uncle John. Burdened by alcoholism, he is still capable of creatively dealing with the family's final disaster as a downpour and flood surge around the survivors.
Orth sang the justification of John's action beautifully. The symbolism is rich throughout this inspired scene: The Oklahoma drought has been left far behind. Its drastic consequences have now met the rising of California waters, and the diminished yet undefeated family refuses to go wholly under.
[Photos by Ken Howard]