OTSL reads Steinbeck's righteous sentence with a commanding voice.
What a show! Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened The Grapes of Wrath, a work by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie. I have never in my life been more emotionally moved by an opera than by this glorious production.
John Steinbeck's novel came out in 1939 and won the Pulitzer prize. It was made into a film in 1940. Steinbeck was given a Nobel Prize in 1962. In 1990 a stage adaptation of Grapes was produced. It's an American icon. Gordon's operatic adaptation premiered in 2007 and over the next few years it was produced in several "revised" or "modified" or "concert" versions.
The Opera Theatre of St. Louis commissioned this newly "streamlined" version. It's in two-acts, has a cast of forty and runs nearly three hours, so the original three-act, four-hour work must have been epic indeed. Be that as it may this current version is a work of remarkable beauty and power.
And its story is, alas, startlingly relevant to the problems of the world today. Like the Joad family and the many thousands of "Okies" who shared their plight, the world is confronted with ongoing (or imminent) ecological and economic catastrophes. Had the government acted on the wise advice of science the Dust Bowl could have been prevented. Today those in power and authority seem similarly oblivious to both the ecological and economic advice of those who have learned the lessons of the past. "Pull out of the Paris accords and let the climate go to Hell! Deregulate the banks and make it easier for the 'haves' to further ravage the 'have nots'!" The river of migrants which Steinbeck draws in his novel is an echo of the flood of migrants struggling to escape poverty today. The Grapes of Wrath has lessons for us all.
The score of this opera is light on melody; there's nothing that you'll leave the theater whistling. But there is so much truly beautiful music! Ricky Ian Gordon is a very master of orchestration. The music is for the most part nicely tonal, but with powerful dissonances at moments of stress. It covers a wide spectrum: it can be folksy or jazzy or Broadway or modern and complex. It's very much at the level of Bernstein. There are quite lovely arias and duets, and the many choral passages are rich and wonderfully dramatic. At times many different vocal lines intertwine gorgeously.
Michael Korie's libretto is natural and colloquial and very true to the time and place. It's also true to Steinbeck's subtle but pervasive Old Testament flavor, which comes clearly through in names, phrases, images and themes.
All of the principal singers are given their wonderful moments. Katharine Goeldner splendidly fulfills the demanding central role of Ma Joad. She is impressively gifted -- both vocally and as an actress. She shines with her iron determination to hold the family together. Hers is the essential message of Steinbeck. In a repeated aria she ponders the question, "What is 'us'?" Is it simply blood relation, symbolized in the few small things that must not be left behind?" As the evening passes we see that definition of "us" expanding to embrace all of those suffering in the world. Preacher Casy says of Ma Joad, "There's a woman so great with love she scares you."
Tobias Greenhalgh plays Tom, the son on parole from a manslaughter sentence. Greenhalgh, a strapping, handsome, earnest young man, gives Henry Fonda a run for his money, and he has a strong true baritone voice. Steinbeck would surely smile on this Tom as he sings that famous farewell to his mother: "Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there . . ."
Erstwhile preacher Casy, "a burnt-out Holy Roller," is sung by Geoffrey Agpalo. He has a truly wonderful, clear, strong tenor voice and very fine diction. He captures all the humor and wisdom of this, Steinbeck's Christ figure. (Why did I have a tiny wish that he looked more like John Caradine?)