13 Feb 2007
Dust-bowl opera overwhelming at Minnesota premiere
The great American opera? Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Grapes of Wrath” might be it.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
The great American opera? Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Grapes of Wrath” might be it.
Although opera buffs were sufficiently curious to sell out all five performances of the work premiered by Minnesota Opera on February 10, they nonetheless found it difficult to imagine John Steinbeck’s account of the exodus from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl as an opera.
The 1939 novel seemed too long, too complex and too freighted with despair for such transformation. And doubts were enhanced by reports that identified Gordon with Broadway and Sondheim.
Wasn’t this a task for a heavy-weight composer?
But during rehearsals of “GOW” at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, word got around that Brian Leerhuber, Tom Joad in the huge cast, had called the new opera “Verdi on steroids.”
And at the premiere that assessment was wondrously born out by Gordon’s amazing and unusual score, for “GOW” — the composer’s first large-scale work — is of monumental dimensions. With two intermissions it runs over 4 hours, and it calls for 13 principal singers, plus 50 featured roles, several sung by one vocalist.
In three acts divided into 33 scenes, “GOW” is of epic sweep and of a mesmerizing grandeur that makes the audience participants in the Joads’ flight from Oklahoma to California in the depth of the Great Depression.
“GOW” is the product of a collective of gifted artists assembled by MO artistic director Dale Johnson. Librettist Michael Korie has stripped down Steinbeck’s 600 pages to a lean and singable text in verse that only occasionally rhymes and retains the speech patterns of the Okies.
Stage director and dramaturg Eric Simonson, a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre for 20 years, has directed, adapted and acted in numerous plays, including Frank Galati’s stage version of “Grapes of Wrath,” in which he played eight minor roles in the production seen both in London and Chicago.
“I was in on the opera from the start,” says Simonson, who recalls “batting around ideas” with Johnson back in 1996. And, working closely with Gordon and Korie, he was a “hands-on” participant in “GOW” as a work in progress.
“Others had sought permission to make an opera of the novel from the Steinbeck estate,” he says, “but we were the first to whom it was granted.”
“It was then a matter of whittling the book down to a manageable libretto. We decided to focus on Tom Joad and his mother.”
“Once that decision was made, everything fell into place. Everything else was unessential.”
For the sets - a steel catwalk frames the stage - designer Allen Moyer sought inspiration in Walker Evans’ photographic documentation of the Depression. Projections on the back wall of the stage - sometimes black and white, sometimes motion picture excerpts - add to the dramatic impact of the staging.
Costumes are the work of Kärin Kopischke; choreographer Doug Varone has added animation to the action.
Early on the creative crew considered making “GOW” an American “Ring” running over several evenings; the idea, however, was abandoned
And although there will be demands that the opera be “shrunk,” it is now the length that the story demands.
The score - without recitative - is song based and many scenes flow easily into the next. Gordon points to models in “Porgy and Bess,” “Street Scene,” “Showboat” and Sondheim, but he has gone beyond them in a score that is original and completely his.
One recognizes, to be sure, art songs, musical comedy, jazz, traditional blues and other references to the music of the time of the novel, but the composer has assimilated these influences and washed over them with a style essentially contemporary.
“I want the opera to be a powerful evocation of Steinbeck’s story,” Gordon says in an essay written for the premiere, “a story about great flat distances, wide open spaces, vast silences filled with doubt, fear and hope, with pain and loss and ultimately with compassion and human kindness.
“The wide-open spaces of Copland are in it — filtered through me.”
About the score Leerhuber says that Gordon “gives us lines to sing that soar and tunes that are immediate in their expressive outpouring; it is emotionally gripping music that moves you.”
The mammoth cast is without a weak link. Leerhuber - happily free of references to Henry Fonda’s 1940 movie portrayal, is a strong and sensitive Tom Joad, the son who hopes to help his mother — mezzo Deanne Meek — hold the family together.
Tenor Roger Honeywell is lapsed preacher Jim Casy, and baritone Andrew Wilkowske is moving as retarded son Noah, whose suicide by drowning is expanded from the novel to conclude Act Two.
A gem of the score is baritone Robert Orth’s funereal “Little Dead Moses,” with which he angry — but tenderly — sets Rosasharn’s still-born baby afloat on the river.
Yet it is Kelly Kaduce who tops her many colleagues as downtrodden adolescent Rosasharn (Rose of Sharon). As in the novel — something beyond Hollywood in 1940 — she offers her breast to a starving man and then sings the concluding “One Star,” which “like a candle in a dust storm” will one day “fill the sky with silver sparkles.”
Thus — despite the darkness and overt tragedy of their story — Gordon and Korie lower the curtain with hope.
“GOW,” in sum, is not about the Okies; it is the Okies, these “tumbleweeds on the road to nowhere,” as Korie says, confronted head on. Their story is not told; it is lived out with compelling immediacy before the eyes of the audience, who make the journey with them.
And this it is that places “GOW” in the company of Janáček and Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth.”
Almost a century after Mahler’s quintessential score, Gordon and Korie have created a new — and American — song of the earth.
Tom Joad sums it all up at the conclusion of Act Two:
This red land — is us.
All its hardship — is us.
And the flood years.
And the drought years.
And the dust years — all us.
Till we find a place to live,
A home for us to stay,
Our home is here we are,
‘cause us — is USA.
“It’s the story of a disenfranchised people,” says Brian Leerhuber. “And Americans today are struggling with very similar issues of physical and emotional displacement, trying to figure out what the American dream is all about.”
“Grapes of Wrath,” a co-commission of Minnesota Opera and Utah Symphony & Opera, will be on staged in Salt Lake City in May. It will be seen later at Pittsburgh Opera and Houston Grand Opera. Tulsa Opera was considering the work to mark the centennial of Oklahoma statehood in 2007; however, the company’s board of directors, wishing to distance itself from the theme of Okies and the Dust Bowl, vetoed the idea.
Footnote: Since apocalyptic thinking is vogue in certain circles today, it is recalled that Steinbeck’s title comes from the Book of Revelations, Chapter 14, where — in anticipation of the Apocalypse — the grapes in question are pressed.
Ricky Ian Gordon’s latest compact disc is “Orpehus & Euridice,” a song cycle on the world’s oldest love story, premiered on the American Songbook and New Visions series in 2005. Commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Ghostlight Records release features soprano Elizabeth Futral, clarinetist Todd Palmer and pianist Melvin Chen.