Grapes of Wrath at Carnegie Hall: A story whose time has come – again

Any Steinbeck adaptation needs to be epic.

Few works of literature go so deep into the need for home and family as the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath. And Ricky Ian Gordon’s 2007 opera version packed the Carnegie Hall stage April 17 with the necessary magnitude of resources, plus extra relevance. No longer a piece of American history and lightning rod for social change in the 1940s, the story of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl migration to California turns a mirror on the current immigration issue in the southwestern U.S. that may also determine the outcome of the forthcoming election.

The Grapes of Wrath, MasterVoices, Carnegie Hall
4/17/2024 Credit Photo: Toby Tenenbaum
Back Row: Victor Starsky, Nathan Gunn, Margaret Lattimore, Jan Constantine, Malcolm MacKenzie, Kyle Oliver, Christian Pursell, Mikaela Bennett, Schyler Vargas. Front Row: Ruby Waxman, David Fleiss, John Brancy, Gordon Henry.

Whatever side one is on politically, Gordon’s opera – like the 1939 Steinbeck novel – gives face, body and soul to the distressed grimy anonymous Okies who arrived in California by the hundreds of thousands in the mid-1930s. The production by MasterVoices Chorus (120 voices, approximately) lent a grandeur to the piece that would be less possible in an opera house, and was given an even greater sense of realism with Wendall K. Harrington video design enveloping the Carnegie stage, not just conveying atmospheric elements that are so key in the story, but showing real-life people turned out of their arid Oklahoma homes and sent onto the road west in aging jalopes. Real people here. Were there to be some sort of postscript to this 18-character opera, it might be Ted Hearne’s short, more recent Animals which takes off from a Donald Trump speech condemning modern migrants as sub-human.

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The Grapes of Wrath MasterVoices Carnegie Hall
Credit Photo: Toby Tenenbaum

This operatic Grapes of Wrath has been around for roughly 15 years. Somehow, I missed the numerous stage productions and never had my moment with the Minnesota Opera recording. (Critics go where they’re assigned, and I’ve followed Gordon’s other works fairly closely). But this April 17 two-act concert version with narration connecting the scenes and a cast headed by Nathan Gunn made such an impact – I’d call it one of the great New York events of the season – I wonder if this is one of those pieces that needs time and repeat visits for performers to locate its specific identity. This is not necessarily latter-day Aaron Copland – and stands miles above that composer’s main opera The Tender Land. In fact, this Grapes of Wrath production was a return visit for MasterVoices, which, under the leadership of Ted Sperling, specializes in hybrid repertoire (recently, Sondheim’s Aristophanes-based romp, The Frogs). 

The Steinbeck story is told lyrically by Gorodn in a song-based manner that often sounds like Americana. But just when one’s ear seemed to know exactly where a vocal line was headed, the melody or gestures went elsewhere, not radically, but in ways that told you this is not second-hand music, but something created with great specificity for the character and situation at hand. The Michael Korie libretto is well fashioned for the long-term storytelling, but tries too hard to come off as song lyrics with frequently rhyme schemes. Whether or not the rhymes are clever or apt, they don’t always serve the characterization of plainspoken people, sometimes taking you out if the story. In contrast, Gordon’s rich harmonic sense reels you back in. Songs, arias, whatever you want to call them, usually don’t end with a concluding button (so to speak) but often dissolve into the next scene. There’s nothing folksy about the orchestral participation – if anything, it’s French influenced – effectively framing the story and creating just enough distance for listeners to take in the larger meaning, and to allow one’s empathy to enter.

Consistently, the score maintains a sense of the environment – who these people are in relation to the land. How this is accomplished is less easily explained. Gordon’s music is full of subliminal elements that delineates the personalities of the Joad family and everyone around them by virtue of subtle, shifting harmonies, tonal planning and keen timing within his theatrically expansive sensibility. Gordon’s particular brand of alchemy is most apparent in the late-in-the-opera suicide of Noah Joad (played with eloquent restraint by Christian Pursell). This is the family’s most ambiguous character: He’s the eldest son, but possibly had a problematic birth delivery, and was intelligently characterized by Korie as someone we might now described as being on the autism spectrum. Vaguely musing on his uselessness, he drowns himself in Colorado River with music that projects a fusion of delusion, practicality and relief that he won’t be one more mouth for his family to feed and that he finally finds his home in the soothing river water.

Overrall, immense credit goes to conductor/director Sperling for marshalling the considerable forces at hand (including the Orchestra of St. Lukes, and for assembling a cast of singers who deliver the vocal/theatrical package so seemlessly that elements of voice, acting and theatrical presence couldn’t be differentiated. Cast members who seemed particularly effortless in managing their places in the Grapes of Wrath ecosystem include Kyle Oliver (Tom Joad), Margaret Lattimore (Ma Joad), Mikaela Bennett (Rose of Sharon) and, of course, the aformentioned Gunn and Pursell. Many composers skirt the line between show music and classical, but Gordon is among the few drawing strength equally from both. And that requires singers who go beyond portraying characters, but have the ability to live them.  

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