Collegiate Chorale Concert Raises the Question, Is Gordon & Korie’s “Grapes of Wrath” the Great American Opera?
By Bruce-Michael Gelbert
Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie’s complete, three-act, four-hour opera “The Grapes of Wrath,” after John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel of life and strife during the Great Depression, was given a world premiere by the Minnesota Opera on February 10, 2007, subsequent performances by the Pittsburgh Opera, and further hearings in Utah and Texas, but has not yet reached New York. On March 22, at Carnegie Hall, the Collegiate Chorale, assisted by a strong slate of Broadway and opera performers, rectified this situation somewhat by presenting the world premiere of “The Grapes of Wrath: Concert Opera Version in Two Acts,” and giving us an approximately two-and-a-half-hour taste of what we’ve been missing. To judge from this performance, it just may be that what Korie calls “arguably the Great American Novel” has yielded the Great American Opera.
With Ted Sperling leading the orchestra, and the Chorale and soloists, eschewing formal attire and dressed, in character, as just folks, and Jane Fonda, dignified and handsome, supplying narration, which substituted for the omitted recitatives, the company left us with the impression that this musicking of the tale of the Joad family’s struggle with poverty and hardship, as they migrate from Oklahoma to California in search of elusive employment, after losing their farmland, has an uplifting message to convey about man and woman’s basic humanity, even as melancholy farewells and eulogies, and expressions of bitterness concerning the gap between haves and have-nots, abut soaring Americana anthems and hymns and loving words of encouragement. The other major impression conveyed was that, though there are, undeniably, solo star turns, the opera “The Grapes of Wrath” is essentially an ensemble piece. Although probably an easier, less emotional read, considered with some measure of detachment, during a time of prosperity than during a recession, with the immediacy of the issues it raises amplified, Steinbeck’s book seems to send a positive message, about the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of adversity, as well.
We root for the Joads, in the opera as in the book, in large part because the strongest of them keep the rest going despite all that befalls them, continuing to motivate the others when spirits flag. These figures are Ma Joad, portrayed here by Victoria Clark, as a powerful, sensitive materfamilias, who never loses sight of her loving duty to stir her family to action, though grandparents die during the journey and she must bid farewell to two of her sons, one dead and the other on the run anew from the law; her son Tom Joad, violating parole to stay with the others and, with a strong sense of justice and fairness, communicated by baritone Nathan Gunn, watching over his siblings and keeping his temper in check until driven to kill-an eye for an eye, after all-for a second time; and Ma’s loving daughter Rosasharn-i.e. Rose of Sharon-who, as limned by soprano Elizabeth Futral, has inherited her mother’s patience and goodness.
Striking in honky-tonk-style numbers were theater’s Steven Pasquale, as hotheaded young Joad son, Al, decrying the shabby shantytown, or “Hooverville,” in California, in which the family temporarily settles, a far cry from the fruitful land of plenty they envisioned, and Christine Ebersole as Mae, a waitress with a tough exterior concealing the proverbial heart of gold, who voices a preference for financially stable “Truck Drivers” as customers over impoverished ‘Okies,’ but ultimately shows generosity.
The Chorale impressively joined in the expansive, uplifting opening, “The Last Time There Was Rain;” the juxtaposition of the optimistic “The Plenty Road” with the bigoted outcry against the ragged “Okies;” “Like They Promised,” an exultant first vision of the fertile California of the desperate migrants’ dreams; the folksy “Square Dance,” kicked off by ‘fiddle’ solos for the violinists, in the utopian experimental government camp in which the Joads seek refuge; and “The Day the Rain Began,” when floods prove as destructive as drought. Cut from the opera during rehearsals, but restored here, was “Dios te salve,” a dulcet Spanish-language prayer, sung by women’s chorus, portraying Mexican migrant workers.
As Joad family elders, Clark and baritone Stephen Powell, as Pa Joad’s brother John, taught the young Joad siblings that they had valuable lessons to teach the world. In “I’ll Be There,” Ma’s touching farewell to Tom, Clark and Gunn sang of Tom’s mission not to let “our history,” that of the Joad “fam-bly,” be forgotten, once he loses himself in the anonymity of Los Angeles. When Rosasharn’s baby is born dead, Powell’s Uncle John asserted, in a quasi-spiritual, that this “Little Dead Moses” should be set afloat in a box on the river, to demonstrate the plight of the poor to the populace and, when Ma and Rosasharn encounter a boy and his starving father, Ma inspires her daughter to save the man’s life with the mother’s milk her child will not need, and Futral’s sensitive “Take it, Mister. You got to,” brought this concert version to a moving conclusion.
Up-and-coming tenor Sean Panikkar, deputizing for Anthony Dean Griffey, as Casy, the former preacher, who accompanies the Joads on their journey, made his mark with “A Word for this Old Man,” his fervent eulogy for Grampa Joad (Don McComb), and with a lively “Turn Things Around,” calling Tom to do his duty and stop the unwitting Joads from letting themselves be used as ‘scabs,’ picking peaches and replacing workers on strike. Baritone Matthew Worth made significant contributions in several roles-Connie Rivers, Rosasharn’s starry-eyed husband, who, discouraged, deserts her; the ragged man, on his way back from California, with a hard luck story that fails to deter the Joads from pressing on; the truck driver, who gives Tom a ride when he’s released from prison; and the deputy who confronts Ma Joad, who feigns ignorance when he questions her about Tom, although she’s on her way to bid him farewell. Baritone Andrew Wilkowske, as Noah, the Joad’s slow first-born son, invoked his Biblical namesake in a simple, sort of sing-song “(Hidin’ in) the Creek,” when he decided to ease the “fam-bly” burden and give them one less mouth to have to feed, by drowning himself, which brought Clark’s tender “Dream beautiful,” a dulcet lullaby/adieu in response. Completing the cast, with distinction, were children Madelyn Gunn, Nathan Gunn’s daughter, as young Ruthie Joad, and Alex Schwartz as Winfield Joad, the youngest sibling; Peter Halverson as Pa Joad, who, with Powell, played an important part in the “Square Dance” number; and Rochelle Nelson as Granma Joad, who, like Grampa, didn’t live to see the promised land.
Eric Simonson directed, and evocative projections, designed by Wendall K. Harrington, showed us the sites and situations the singers were describing.
The Collegiate Chorale will explore George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt” on May 12 at NYU’s Skirball Center, with soprano Sari Gruber, countertenor Brian Asawa and tenor Rufus Müller, under Chorale Music Director James Bagwell’s baton. Visit www.collegiatechorale.org or telephone 646/202-9623 for details.