If you are – relatively – new to opera, you, in particular, need to see The Grapes of Wrath. It will change and inform your perspective for a long time, possibly even permanently.
This is a revised, shortened version of the opera that debuted in 2007. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie also changed it to a two-act form. Still, this premiere performance manages to express the deep feelings of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Steinbeck without leaving anyone feeling short-changed. Shaken, yes, but so does the novel and the impressive film taken from it.
It takes place during the Great Depression, a time when agricultural processes and meteorological occurrences coincided to produce the Dust Bowl, making the terrible economic situation even worse. The Joad family is losing their farm because nothing can be grown, and they decide to head out US 66 to California to look for work in the fields there. It’s a grim business, and nothing is sugar-coated in the retelling.
And yet...and yet. The music is wondrous, floating along, wonderful melodies and great voices. The libretto – oh, lordy, the words, as Ma Joad might say. It’s real people language, both in terms of grammar and pronunciation. Korie’s respect for Steinbeck’s characters is immense.
As in real life, not every moment is grim. There’s a rowdy duet early in the first act when Tom Joad, en route home from prison to see his family, meets up with Casy, a preacher who has lost his faith and is enjoying it with great cheer. But my favorite has to be an aria – it’s hard to call this an aria, but technically that’s what it is – that takes place in a diner when the waitress/owner’s wife sings about her love for truck drivers, pace Kitty Wells of “My Big Truck Drivin’ Man” fame.
Katharine Goeldner’s Ma Joad is indomitable, with a voice to match, a fine performance from all angles. Tom Joad, the lead and one of her quartet of sons, is Tobias Greenhalgh. If you remember the movie clip of Henry Fonda’s “I’ll be there” speech – Greenhalgh’s rendition of Gordon’s aria of that is just as stirring. The older Joad daughter, Rosasharn, Deanna Breiwick, young and hopeful and in love, shines. Geoffrey Agpalo, has a romp with the rowdy Casy, and is in fine voice. And a wave of the fancy crocheted-edge handkerchief to the waitress, played by Jennifer Panara.
Speaking of handkerchiefs, James Schuette’s costumes are drab and near-colorless, a logical interpretation of the situation, not beautiful but just right. The set, from Allen Moyer, works beautifully, from the great opening scene in a soup kitchen onward, including turning a piano into a tractor. (Also in the visual realm, the program has a fine Thomas Hart Benton painting of the Joads well worth inspection,.)
Conductor Christopher Allen and stage director James Robinson have pulled the elements together to give us a show that stuns and pleases. Perhaps more importantly, The Grapes of Wrath reminds us of what terrible times this country has gone through and survived. Perseverance is still important.
This one’s a real winner.
The Grapes of Wrath
through June 25
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves