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Christine Ebersole [Photo by Erin Baiano courtesy of The Collegiate Chorale]
28 Mar 2010

A Composer Grows before his Work — The Grapes of Wrath at Carnegie Hall

Many congratulations and thanks are in order to the Collegiate Chorale for bringing Ricky Ian Gordon’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath to New York audiences this week.

Ricky Ian Gordon: The Grapes of Wrath

Jane Fonda, Narrator. Nathan Gunn: Tom Joad; Victoria Clark: Ma Joad; Elizabeth Futral: Rosasharn; Sean Panikkar: Jim Casy; Peter Halverson: Pa Joad; Stephen Powell: Uncle John; Andrew Wilkowske: Noah; Steven Pasquale: Al; Christine Ebersole: Mae; Matthew Worth: Ragged Man/Connie/Truck Driver; Madelyn Gunn: Ruthie. American Symphony Orchestra. Ted Sperling, Conductor. Edward Barnes, Producer. Eric Simonson, Director. Frances Aronson, Lighting Designer. Wendall Harrington, Projection Designer. Carnegie Hall, March 22, 2010.

Above: Christine Ebersole

All photos by Erin Baiano courtesy of The Collegiate Chorale


However, while the evening at Carnegie Hall was more theatrically compelling than most semi-staged performances, the compromise of shortening the three-act opera into two acts of music-theatre with a crossover cast seemed better intended than it was actually effective. Firstly, by replacing the connective recitative with narration from novel (read by Jane Fonda), Gordon’s musical diction was made less effective and, moreover, Michael Korie’s rhyming libretto suffered in comparison to John Steinbeck’s original prose. Secondly, changing the theatrical structure of the evening necessarily altered the musical architecture. Reoccurring motives effectively became musical theatre reprisals rather than the thematic development post-Wagnerian opera audiences expect. At its best, Gordon’s score evoked Ragtime more than Porgy and Bess.

The crossover casting, made possible by across the board sound enhancement, was inspired in some instances but minimized the vocal demands on the singers and did little to establish The Grapes of Wrath as an equivalent to the great American novel. Christine Ebersole was in character from the moment she stepped onto the stage, much more so than most of her counterparts from the world of opera and concert repertoire. That said, while her brief appearance as the waitress Mae should be lauded for the character arc created in a single scene, Ebersole’s vocalism on Monday evening would be considered lacking on either the Broadway or the operatic stage. Victoria Clark and Steven Pasquale, both from the original cast of Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza, fared better. As Ma Joad, it was Clark, rather than headliner Nathan Gunn, who proved to be the both the musical and dramatic lynchpin of the evening. Pasquale used Al Joad’s short second act aria “Hooverville” as an opportunity for cynical showboating à la Gershwin’s Sportin’ Life.

Among the opera singers in the cast, Gunn had the easiest singing and, not coincidentally, the most fun with his musical material. His duet with Sean Panikkar (stepping in for Anthony Dean Griffey as the preacher Jim Casy) featured the evening’s most exciting vocalism. Moreover, Panikkar dealt with the Jiminy Cricket text of his aria “Things Turn Around” with considerable style and dignity. It was unfortunate to hear such a fine singer’s phrasing and coloring flattened by the so-called acoustic “enhancement.”

In order to elide three acts into two, Gordon and Korie had to cut much of the musical and dramatic exposition and development. Therefore, the aria establishing Jim Casy’s character was actually his swan song. This was also the case with Andrew Wilkowske in the role of Noah. Perfectly cast, Wilkowske carried off the evening’s most challenging scene with sweet singing, sensitive acting, and overall aplomb. As Uncle John, Stephen Powell’s performance was fully realized both dramatically and vocally. Within the ensemble cast, Matthew Worth played three parts, but should be especially commended for his turn as the Ragged Man.

CC100322-555RT small.pngNathan Gunn and Victoria Clark

Costuming by Jacob Climer and projections by Wendall K. Harrington helped to actualize the opera’s considerable theatrical potential. Inexplicably, though, Elizabeth Futral showed no visible signs of pregnancy as Rosasharn. Some of the projections, a mix of black-and-white period footage and color representations of Dust Bowl meteorological phenomena, were more literal than evocative (as in the case of the burning crops during the riot at Hooper Ranch). The evening’s rather abrupt ending, in particular, could have been made more poignant with different projections and lighting. Perhaps this was due to the limitations of the concert stage – a full orchestra of music stand lights took away from the poetry of Rosasharn’s “one star” in the night sky as a beacon of American hope – or, more likely, the rushed feeling of condensing a five hours of original music into two acts.

In either case, as an evening of music-theatre Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath shows promise. Since its original production at the Minnesota Opera in 2007, members of the original team, including director Eric Simonson, have overseen the subsequent productions at Utah Opera and Pittsburgh Opera as well as this week’s performance at Carnegie Hall. If new creative teams can work with the material as effectively as singers like Andrew Wilkowske, Sean Panikkar, and Stephen Powell have assimilated their roles, then audiences have something to look forward to.

Clearly, Gordon and Korie are open to the idea of re-tooling their opera in order to make it more viable for today’s opera houses and audiences. It would be interesting to see if, rather than featuring a large orchestra and expanding the use of the chorus, the opera could be centered around a core ensemble cast à la John Corigliano’s recent reconfiguration of The Ghosts of Versailles. After all, the difference between a novel and a musical score as a source document is that as a book stands the test of time it eventually becomes a definitive example of something specific within its literary canon. In order for an opera to become part of the standard repertoire, the score and libretto need to inspire many different interpretations so that multiple successful productions may be mounted. The Collegiate Chorale’s concert version of The Grapes of Wrath should definitely be considered a success and a step towards establishing both the composer and the work within the American opera repertoire.

Alison Moritz

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