'The Grapes of Wrath' bears rich operatic fruit

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath already has been reimagined as an Oscar-winning film and Tonywinning play. Can yet another adaptation add anything to that tradition?

It can and does. The new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie masterfully captures the scope and spirit of Steinbeck's Nobel-winning epic. "The Grapes of Wrath" works as grand opera, with its large cast and sweeping score, and as a pointed reminder that the social problems that vexed Steinbeck never really go away. "I swear, what's this country comin' to?" a chorus of Pump Guys sneers at the desperate "Okies." What, indeed.

Utah Opera's production opened Saturday night in Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre, led by baritone Brian Leerhuber and mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek's magnetic performances as Tom Joad and his long-suffering Ma. The company co-commissioned the work with Minnesota Opera, which staged the world premiere in February. Kudos to Utah Symphony & Opera CEO Anne Ewers and Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth for helping make it happen.

Gordon's score is, as conductor Grant Gershon described it, "a patchwork - a quilt of American sound." The composer's antecedents - Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, among others - are clear, yet Gordon stitches them together in a way all his own. Folk music, swing, Andrews Sisters-style harmonies, jazz, even some Handelian word painting all pop through the contemporary opera fabric.

Recurring motifs, such as "Handbills" and "It's Not My Fault," help tie it all up. And don't be surprised if you walk out humming one of the tunes. Korie's remarkable libretto builds poetry out of rough-hewn couplets and deceptively simple lines, some of them straight out of Steinbeck. Even a line that looks like an eye-roller on paper - " 'cause us - is USA!" - is transformed by Leerhuber's bitter, forceful reading.

The story unfolds in three progressively engrossing acts: the Joad family's displacement from their Oklahoma homestead by the Dust Bowl, their migration across the desert on Route 66 and the events that befall them in California. Korie and Gordon reach beyond the plot to incorporate the interstitial chapters of the novel, adding rich context to the work. They also use the novel's symmetry to compelling effect. The powerful opening chorus, "The Last Time There Was Rain," is reprised at the end, this time as "The Day the Rain Began." Tom eulogizes his fallen friend, preacher-turned-labor activist Jim Casy, with music and words that echo Casy's eulogy of Grampa Joad. And in a departure from the book, developmentally disabled brother Noah's exit from the family is expanded into an Act 2 finale that prefigures the opera's visceral conclusion: Noah, like his sister Rosasharn, decides to help out in a way that no one else can.

Under Eric Simonson's stage direction, the large cast of 13 principals and five featured performers (who sing multiple roles) are compelling and believable. Subtle but telling touches - such as Tom shooing young Winfield away as the Ragged Man tells his grim tale, or Ma rushing to help a woman who minutes earlier tried to swindle her - abound. Simonson's staging of the opening scene, in which green cornfields give way to a barren Dust Bowl, is a gem.

Meek, with kindness shining through her steely resolve, and Leerhuber, making a vivid transformation from optimistic ex-con to impassioned activist, are the heart of the show, but theirs are just two of many strong performances. Gordon has given Rosasharn some of the opera's most appealing music, and soprano Jennifer Aylmer sings it with silvery, youthful vitality. If tenor Roger Honeywell's young, strapping Casy isn't what you pictured when you read the book, his ingratiating performance will quickly win you over.

Baritone Robert Orth, as Uncle John, has one of the opera's most memorable moments as he lets loose a torrent of rage in "Little Dead Moses."

Baritone Peter Halverson as Pa Joad, mezzo Mary Ann Dresher and tenor Todd Miller as Granma and Grampa, tenor Jesse Blumberg as Connie Rivers, bass-baritone James Rollins as Noah and tenor Joshua Kohl as Al also give strong performances. The five featured singers - tenor Theodore Chletsos, baritones Kory Bickel and Gregory Pearson, soprano Karin Wolverton and mezzo Kathleen Humphrey - turn in firstrate work in their multiple guises. The Utah Opera Chorus, given a meatier role than usual, excels. Erin McDermott and Connor McCoy charmed Saturday's audience as the smallest Joads, Ruthie and Winfield.

The Utah Symphony, augmented by guitar, banjo and harmonica, plays vibrantly under Gershon, its exuberance only occasionally threatening to overpower the singers. Bruce Coughlin assisted Gordon in crafting the colorful orchestration.

Wendall Harrington's inventive visual design, incorporating video and still photography, brings Allen Moyer's simple set to life. Robert Wierzel's lighting and Kärin Kopischke's period costumes also are part of this handsome production. Doug Varone's choreography enlivens the action, particularly in the striking "Little Dead Moses" sequence.
- Catherine Reese Newton, Salt Lake Tribune, 14 May 2007