Gordon: The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath, Ricky Ian Gordon's sprawling, emotionally powerful opera, closely follows John Steinbeck's classic novel about the plight of displaced sharecroppers during the Great Depression: there are haunting parallels to the calamities of our own times.

A veteran composer of theater music, Gordon here makes his largest operatic statement to date. The Grapes of Wrath had its world premiere in February 2007 at Minnesota Opera; the present recording is derived from the opera's first run of performances there. (The opera has subsequently been presented at Utah Opera and Pittsburgh Opera.) The opera calls for an enormous cast, with thirteen principal characters and fifty ancillary roles, plus chorus. The three acts incorporate thirty-three scenes, not one of which seems extraneous. Librettist Michael Korie manages to include every essential element of Steinbeck's novel into an opera with a total running time of a little more than three hours, and does so quite effectively in verse.

Gordon's music for this opera incorporates several popular American song forms, all of which were in common use during the 1930s. This is not to say that all of the music is tied to these forms: there are large, splendid ensemble numbers as well. In fact, it is in these ensembles and other numbers not tied to popular song forms that Gordon's music is most radiant and compelling. The music is uniformly tuneful, heartfelt and expressive.

Under the assured direction of conductor Grant Gershon, all hands in the enormous cast give stellar performances. Of special note are Brian Leerhuber and Deanne Meek as Tom Joad and Ma Joad. Gordon and Korie have amplified the importance of Ma as the strongest member of the Joad family, a theme that Steinbeck, given the spaciousness allowed in the novel, illuminates more gradually. The loving bond between Ma and Tom is poignantly brought to the fore in the opera. Indeed, two of the finest moments in the opera, and in this performance, are the duets involving these characters, specifically, Act I's "Us" and Act III's "I'll Be There." Kelly Kaduce is stunning as Rosasharn, a smaller role but a pivotal one, which she brings to life vividly. Rosasharn's aria, "One Star," heard in Act I and reprised at the end of Act III, carries the underlying hopefulness of the opera: it is hard to hear it and maintain a dry eye. Given the size of the cast, it is understandable though frustrating that the singers in the supporting roles are not identified by name on this set. So, to whoever sang the roles of Act I's Ragged Man and Act II's Mae, bravo and brava.
- Arlo McKinnon, Opera News Online