'Grapes' has it all for vintage opera

Ten years and $2 million in the making, the Minnesota Opera's world premiere of "The Grapes of Wrath" turns out to be well worth the time and expense: It's a grand, sprawling, politically astute and musically compelling affair that amply and accessibly answers the rhetorical question: "An opera about Okies?"

Indeed, John Steinbeck's seminal 1939 novel about the Joad family's grim odyssey across the country, through the Dust Bowl and into the teeth of the Great Depression might not, on the face of it, seem like the stuff of opera. Then again, you've got a heroic matriarch and a tortured son. A doomed romance. Personal sacrifice, tragic death and a gritted-teeth pledge of renewal. Bring on the arias!

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon, librettist Michael Korie and director Eric Simonson fling themselves fearlessly into the fray, conjuring a two-intermission, three-act, four-hour-long journey that only occasionally feels its length.

Gordon, a composer with one foot in the world of musical theater and the other in opera, begins the evening with a roll of thunder and a peal of trumpets that sound like an emotionally inside-out version of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."

From there, his score ranges all over the place - there's snatches of Gershwin, a couple of songs that hark to the musical structure of the well-made Broadway showtune, recitative, even a musical Beethoven joke. Melodic but not particularly showy, it's a cagey and nuanced piece of writing.

One would expect, for instance, there to be a big set-piece to musicalize Tom Joad's famous "I'll be there" speech at the end of the book. Instead, Gordon fashions for this moment a quieter, more restrained duet for Tom and Ma Joad, and saves his musical buckshot for Uncle John and the chorus, who hurl out the rending "Little Dead Moses" to better display the novel's underbelly of helplessness and rage.

Korie's libretto kills off a couple more Joads than does Steinbeck himself and unabashedly embraces the novel's lefty leanings in an effort to reach across the decades.

In the first act, a quartet of corporate CEOs shrug off their responsibility for the crippled economy, singing, "It's not my company / Our stockholders amount to / the bosses we account to. In Act Three, the fallen-away preacher-turned-labor agitator Jim Casey encourages Tom to "attack the need instead of the needy."

These lyrics have punch, but it's Simonson's staging that really packs a wallop. Each of the three acts ends with a stunning stage-picture - an endless parade of migrants trudging westward, a single lost soul floating away from his troubled life and that final, nakedly forlorn pieta from the novel that stirs a sense of both horror and hope.

Costumed company members move almost all of the elements of Allen Moyer's set - from the Joad family truck to an immense metal bridge that traverses the stage - with visible human power. It's a palpable bit of underscoring by Simonson that requires no music at all.

Artfully contrasting this low-tech labor is Wendall K. Harrington's video design, which projects everything from the Dust Bowl to the verdant California fields onto a wide, low backdrop.

The company has periodic and persistent difficulty wrapping themselves around the Okie accent (lots of proper "yours" and "families" sprinkled in among the "yers" and "fam'blys"), but otherwise largely succeeds in conveying the image of a hardscrabble, Depression-era clan rather than a bunch of slumming opera singers.

The steely-eyed, barrel-chested Brian Leerhuber and the unadorned, scrappy Deanne Meek bring both vocal and theatrical resonance to their performances of Tom and Ma Joad. But Roger Honeywell offers the most complex and honest reading as Jim Casey - his tenor is clear and sweet but conversational, and he's forever conveying ideas and feelings with his whole body instead of just his voice.

The roles of daughter Rosasharn and her young husband, Connie, have been beefed up some from the book (hey, what's an opera without lovers?); Kelly Kaduce does a better job of swelling into the emotional contours of the role than her counterpart, Jesse Blumberg.

These leading singers are accompanied by about four-dozen company members, who portray everyone from stockbrokers to square dancers. Their presence punctuates a production of might and sweeping scale, one that in vision and craft, honors Steinbeck's source material.
- Dominic P. Papatola, TwinCities.com, 13 February 2007