'Grapes of Wrath' bears fruit for Opera
Opera Review

While John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" abounds in the raw depiction of displaced sharecroppers' lives during the Great Depression, its most profound moments are subtle and distant. Steinbeck's journalistic style led him to underplay such scenes, in part because he already had heavily weighted the novel with biblical imagery and sobering accounts of corrupt business tactics. Clearly the celebrated novel holds moments of staggering emotion, but Steinbeck left much more on the tree, sentiments waiting to be plucked like the fruit for which the Joad Family wretchedly toils. No better art exists than music to do that.

This is essentially Ricky Ian Gordon's achievement in his work, "The Grapes of Wrath," which opened its run at the Benedum Center Saturday in a top-rate production by Pittsburgh Opera. It is not a retelling of the novel, but an unpacking of its emotional core and even the greater tragedy of the Great Depression itself. Set with unaffected melody and underpinned by an orchestra both evocative and foreboding, transgressions hit the listener harder and tender scenes made the eyes moister, at least than I remember when reading the book years ago. The criterion for whether a novel should be translated into another art form must begin and end with the question: Can it offer something new? Gordon's most definitely does.

Called an opera and sung that way, but like a musical progressing by numbers, with songs rather than arias and with body miking, "Grapes" is better understood more ambiguously as a piece of lyric theater. That is helped by an excellent cast adept at articulating a conversational style with light, clear voices. Gordon applied not only different genres, but also a variety of musical styles such as Copland-esque regionalism, swing, jazz, blues and folk. The orchestra, under conductor Richard Buckley, handled these with precision.

There is no question that Gordon's music was in the service of the plot -- different from most operas in which the story can be secondary to the outpouring of aria after gorgeous aria. But his theatrically driven music drove this tale well and was not without many substantial and beautiful melodies: from the evocative openness of the chorus "The Last Time There Was Rain" to Ma Joad's transporting lullaby "Simple Child" to the strangely appealing vocals uttered above the square dance. And there was a central character among the huge cast -- the rock of the family, Ma Joad (Elizabeth Bishop). Bishop's blue-tinged vocal inflections captured the pain and her acting the willpower of a mother who had no choice but to keep "hangin' on."

Gordon and librettist Michael Korie substantially rewrote "Grapes" for this production. Much of Act 1 was different than it was in its Minnesota Opera premiere last year. Still, the opera started slowly, coming into its own more in the latter two acts. There's unquestionably much material to get to, but I am not sold that the setup needs to be even this complete, especially when it appeared to lose some patrons.

Act 2, starting with a touching portrayal of a diner scene interaction between the Okies and a truck-stop waitress (Anna Jablonski in a marvelous Andrews Sisters-like number) and ending with a visually breathtaking scene in which Noah Joad (Andrew Wilkowske) drowns himself, was nothing short of brilliant. The Third Act went overboard when Uncle John (Robert Orth) sends Rosasharn's (Danielle Pastin) stillborn baby down a swollen creek represented by aggressive group choreography (with a poor young girl "tossed around" above them). But the final scene arrived with more transcendence than I would have thought the actual visual could create -- Steinbeck only hints at it, such was its potency. But with serenity displayed on her face and singing with a silvery timbre, Pastin nourished the starving man in a moving pieta-like pose.

The production was excellent, with fluid dramatic interjections and spectacular scene building. Impersonal scaffolding and rusty corrugated siding surrounded the sepia-toned clothes of the cast, and minimalist sets and a video backdrop gave "Grapes" a light-on-its-feet realism. The choreography (excepting that Moses scene) was natural, with believable interplay between Grampa (Joseph Frank) and Granma (Anna Singer), Ruthie (Michelle Coben) and Winfield (Joseph Serafini) and the multiple roles of Gregory Pearson and Theodore Chletsos.

The initial portrayal of Jim Casy (Sean Panikkar) as some sort of vaudeville actor, strumming the ukulele, was odd, but he was developed expertly. Craig Verm captured the smoldering soul of Tom Joad, Peter Halverson the "hayseed" naivete of Pa Joad and Jason Karn the young man's frustration of Al Joad.
- Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 17, 2008