'Grapes' is a sweet, juicy production
Opera is nearly perfect, except for its length.

The Joad family -- Ma, Pa, Tom and the rest -- surely occupy as much space in the American psyche as do the Waltons or even the Ricardos. John Steinbeck's Depression-era novel "The Grapes of Wrath" introduced us to the Joads, telling of their brutally disillusioning pilgrimage to California. We later encountered them in a movie and a play. Now, courtesy of Minnesota Opera, they return to the stage to sing.

No doubt the Joads would be surprised to find themselves in an opera -- and amazed at how eloquent their voices are. They would be awestruck at the intricate stagecraft used at the Ordway Center to tell their story.

In the most elaborate and expensive production in this company's history (at a cost of $1.8 million, some of that shared by the Utah Symphony & Opera), the Joads would see their life-sustaining Oklahoma cornstalks wither and die. They would see huge set pieces moved about the stage, creating an effortless flow of scenes. They might even recognize the old Hudson Super-Six that carried them West -- a role played here by an authentic '29 Ford.

The chief question concerning this opera, which made its world premiere Saturday night, and will continue at the Ordway Center in St. Paul through Sunday, is what can music add to a story already thrice-told. The answer is a lot. Characters once criticized by Edmund Wilson as being shallow and inarticulate -- mere types -- take on an emotional weight and a kind of hyper-reality when singing Ricky Ian Gordon's supple vocal lines.

That sense is deepened by the ever-shifting, often luminous orchestration (for which Bruce Coughlin is also given credit) and Michael Korie's poetic, stage-smart libretto, which shifts easily between the vernacular idioms of the era -- boogie-woogie and swing -- and more harmonically pungent layers of chords, often heard in the orchestra, that express dark clouds ahead.

Scenes that Steinbeck passes over briefly, such as Ma Joad's final moments in the old house ("Leaving our past behind us"), become richly resonant. A superbly structured septet emerges in the desert sequence of Act 2, combining the three prior numbers, the first of them the haunting "Dry Blue Night," a nocturne for barbershop quartet. The powerful choral number about drought that opens the show -- a Coplandesque five-note theme in the brass -- reappears at the end, describing the flood.

The most touching of all these scenes, however, is the second-act finale. In a departure from the book, Noah, the retarded brother, takes his own life, so as to cease being a burden on the family. Ma Joad suddenly appears, as a young woman, holding baby Noah, and Gordon gives her the kind of simple but beautiful aria -- a lullaby -- that most opera composers seem incapable of writing these days.

This impressive, eye-filling production is smartly staged by Eric Simonson. It is enhanced by Doug Varone's expressive choreography, Allen Moyer's clever set designs, along with costumes by Karin Kopischke and atmospheric video by Wendall Harrington, and a cast of 50, all of whom seemed fired by intensity Saturday night.

In the role of Tom, Brian Leerhuber's rich baritone filled the theater, and his portrayal of this complex character, so often at war with himself, but always growing in awareness, rang true from start to finish. It is, after all, Tom's growing wrath at the injustice of a capitalism run amok that is the spine of the story. Deanne Meek, a superb mezzo, made Ma Joad a desperate but resourceful matriarch, especially touching in her final duet with Tom, a thoughtful expansion by Korie of Steinbeck's famous "I'll be there" speech.

Everyone else, too, performs impressively: Kelly Kaduce (Rosasharn), Roger Honeywell (Jim Casy), Peter Halverson (Pa), Robert Orth (Uncle John), Rosalind Elias (Granma), Dan Dressen (Grampa), Jesse Blumberg (Connie), Andrew Wilkowske (Noah) and Joshua Kohl (Al). Conductor Grant Gershon paced the show sympathetically and drew an alert, committed performance from the chorus.

What Minnesota Opera has come up with is a splendid, almost perfect production of an opera that is smart, funny, touching and harrowing, in all the right places, and yet -- its only real flaw -- is it is too long, at three-plus hours. What to trim from a work that seems, at the same time, seamless, will perhaps be anguished over as the show takes up residence this spring in Utah and in other cities in years to come.
- Michael Anthony, Star Tribune, 12 February 2007