Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"The Grapes of Wrath": Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents a new version of a 2007 opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie

The Joad family, piled into a jalopy truck, heads for California.
John Steinbeck's epochal novel "The Grapes of Wrath," rooted as it is in the dislocation and social upheaval of the Great Depression, carries a particular aptness into our 21st-century obsession with the haves-havenots gulf and mass refugee movements.

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.
James Robinson's stage direction and Allen Moyer's set, which anchors the action to variations on the initial soup-kitchen milieu, give the flavor of a pageant to the story, as if the Joads' adventures were being recollected and relived by a huge touring company (complete with stylized violence). This decision seems both practical and suggestive of the story's larger meaning. It has parallels with the "newsreel" manner of presentation pioneered by John Dos Passos in the "U.S.A." novels. 

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.
preacher Jim Casy (brilliantly portrayed by Geoffrey Agpalo) introduces himself with an irreverent blues. When the lyricism thins out along with the Joads' fortunes at the very end, daughter Rosasharn's partial reprise of "One Star," originally a love duet with her now absconded husband Connie (Andrew Lovato), recalls Americanist-era Copland, with a gently rocking orchestral accompaniment in the concluding measures.

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.
As central son Tom Joad, Tobias Greenhalgh conveyed a stalwart, salt-of-the-earth quality, making much of his second-act aria of promise, "I'll be there." I found him less able to convey Tom's seething impatience with his lot and the bitterness that eventually overturns his resolve to control his temper. As the oldest son Noah, Hugh Russell sang with sturdy pathos an extended soliloquy preceding the character's suicide by drowning, which is tenderly accompanied by a recollection of Ma's long-ago lullaby ("Simple Child") to her developmentally disabled son.

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]

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