John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” typically is remembered as a novel we were assigned to read in school. Working through its pages at the time seemed as arduous as the Joad family’s trek from the Dust Bowl of the plains to Depression-era California. So it’s rewarding to see the book’s earthy, oppressive storyline lent new life in this Minnesota Opera world premiere, which adheres closely to Steinbeck’s aesthetic and morality while extracting waves of beauty and transcendence along the way.
Opera begins with a show of strength from composer Ricky Ian Gordon (“My Life With Albertine”) and librettist Michael Korie (“Grey Gardens”) that is carried through the night: Cast and chorus, totaling 50, sing in starkly elemental terms of the final rain to fall upon the Oklahoma plains, followed by crushing drought. Gordon’s simple melody unfolds beneath Korie’s plain-spoken lyrics, describing the landscape that propels all the action to follow, until a final haunting description of the sere, blasted world of the Dust Bowl, “Like bein’ on the moon … marooned. Marooned.”
One of the story’s few notes of optimism is provided in the early going by Tom Joad (Brian Leerhuber), just released from prison, though his jaunty attitude takes a hit when he finds his family destitute. Leerhuber lends his portrayal a rebel’s stance combined with an unflagging devotion to his kin; his strong baritone is at its best when his character rails against the mounting injustice faced by the Joads.
Gordon’s compositions are startlingly accomplished in range, and refreshingly uninhibited in scope. He frequently moves the score into meditative ballads, but also infuses elements of period jazz and pop in a manner that evokes emotion rather than seeming gratuitously referential. His emotional range is vast, from a number in which Ma Joad (Deanne Meek) lets go of her family’s past, to a jaunty tribute to truck drivers that opens the second act like a glass of iced lemonade on a hot afternoon.
Korie’s lyrics are almost perfectly matched to Gordon’s score. As the music ranges from high to low, Korie writes passages of piercing beauty, then follows with rhyming couplets that both ably tell the story and evoke the poetry of the characters’ tortured lives. He uses blunt, forceful words that elevate the work’s emotionalism by mixing fatalism with optimism until the opera begins to sing in the range of the universal.
The scope of this staging is a major endeavor for the Minnesota Opera (co-producing with Utah Symphony & Opera, Pittsburgh Opera and Houston Grand Opera) and its large budget is exceedingly well spent.
Pieces of scenery move seamlessly in and out of view, and Wendall K. Harrington’s evocative video projections (the desert highway at night, the anything-is-possible light of a California morning) ably abet the action. Perhaps the most evocative sequence of the evening arrives at the end of the second act, when Noah (Andrew Wilkowske) drowns himself. Korie writes a heartbreaking lyric, and Wilkowske is lifted into the air behind a projection as he dies; in that moment, Meek steps into a spotlight to sing a final lullaby to her son. Dry eyes are in short supply.
Meek is a powerhouse throughout the night, combining vocal strength with a forceful stage presence to project Ma Joad’s single-minded quest for survival. Kelly Kaduce, as Rosasharn, also fills the hall when called upon, creating a complex portrait of a young woman first full of the optimism of pregnancy, then bilious with disappointment and finally resigned to do what’s needed in a poignant closing passage.
One is tempted to take issue with the show’s length, at a fraction under four hours, but looking back, it’s extremely difficult to identify any passage as superfluous, any scene as extraneous.
Gordon and Korie have produced a bit of a conundrum: a very long show about suffering and endurance that leaves the viewer enlivened. The intelligence and compassion of their work, combined with the evident vitality and belief of the cast in this opera’s merit, supply high emotion with depth and compassion. This is not a happy story, but its telling is nothing short of incandescent.