'Grapes of Wrath' opera mesmerizing, unforgettable

It has taken nearly 70 years, but "The Grapes of Wrath" has finally been turned into an opera. In the hands of librettist Michael Korie and composer Ricky Ian Gordon, John Steinbeck's expansive novel chronicling the Joad family has received the musical treatment it deserves - as a sweeping panorama filled with passion, drama and poignancy.

Korie has fashioned a forceful libretto, which, rather than highlighting select passages from the novel, embraces the entire story, and, like the novel, turns the events that are described in such simple yet poetic language into an utterly compelling and mesmerizing tale.

The music Gordon has written brings these events and characters to life. At once simple and complex, the score captures the scope and breadth of the story persuasively. Gordon's musical language is a fascinating mix of different styles that incorporate the best of American 20th century music. The score for "The Grapes of Wrath" is a wonderful merger of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, all of which is mixed together and blended into a sophisticated concoction that is uniquely and unmistakably Gordon's.

What Gordon has created isn't the great American opera, as it has been called, but it is certainly one of the most important and vital works for the stage to come from a contemporary American composer in many years.

A cooperative production between the Minnesota Opera and Utah Opera, "Grapes" received its premiere in Minnesota in February, and last Saturday it was unveiled in Salt Lake City with largely the same cast. (Aside from small featured roles - and the children, Ruthie and Winfield - only Rosasharn is sung by a different soprano.)

However, what is currently playing in the Capitol Theatre isn't quite the same work performed in Minnesota. Some 20 to 30 minutes of music have been cut from this version. At nearly four hours in its original form, the opera needed to be trimmed, not only for budgetary reasons, but, more importantly, to tighten the story line.

The version that is now playing here should by no means be considered definitive. The opera still needs work, and hopefully Gordon and Korie will get together after its Salt Lake run and go through the score to make it more dramatically sound before it goes to the Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Pacific, both of whom have committed to staging it.v
Having said that, however, the Utah Opera version of "The Grapes of Wrath" is nevertheless worth seeing. It paints a vivid portrait of the Joads, who are forced off their land in the Dust Bowl of 1930s Oklahoma and move to California seeking work as migrant fruit pickers. The singing is fabulous; the music is glorious; the props are simple yet emphasize the bleakness of the lives depicted in the story, and the impression the opera makes is unforgettable.

Leading the large cast is baritone Brian Leerhuber as Tom Joad. He brings depth and conviction to his large role, singing forcefully, with expressiveness and lyrical beauty.

Mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek as Ma Joad is no less persuasive. She brings warmth and understanding to her role, as well as poignancy. Her arias "Us" and "Fried Dough" are particularly touching.

Tenor Roger Honeywell as the former preacher Jim Casy is also wonderful. He brings a weary worldliness to his role that is irresistibly compelling and earnest.

Soprano Jennifer Aylmer is stunning as Rosasharn. Her dreams of the future for her and her husband, Connie, (baritone Jesse Blumberg) - which include a house and a car - bring a pervading sense of hope to the work and underscore the idea that no matter how desperate life is for the Joads and the other farm workers, one cannot give up hope for a better tomorrow. Rosasharn's duet with Connie, "One Star" - which she reprises at the end of the opera - is full of tenderness, and is one of the most heartfelt pieces in the work.

Others in the cast are equally wonderful. Peter Halvorson as Pa Joad, Robert Orth as Uncle John, Mary Ann Dresher as Granmacq, Todd Miller as Grampa, Joshua Kohl as Al, Erin McDermott as Ruthie, Connor McCoy as Winfield, and in particular, James Rollins as Noah were marvelous in their roles. And the Utah Opera Chorus was, as always, outstanding.

Grant Gershon, who conducted the production in Minnesota, leads members of the Utah Symphony. His pacing is on the mark, bringing a tautness to the action on the stage and a cohesiveness to the score that allows the story to unfold with a fine sense of drama.
- Edward Reichel, Deseret Morning News, 15 May 2007