The Grapes of Wrath/Live from the Minnesota Opera World Premiere
Alan Rich on the CD
Ian Lincoln | Dayton,Ohio | 09/11/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
Sept. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Composer Ricky Ian Gordon's fluent, powerful setting of a great -- maybe the greatest -- American novel, John Steinbeck's ``The Grapes of Wrath,'' is now available on a vivid, three-CD box set from PS Classics. The opera already has drawn critical raves and silenced many of the naysayers who bemoan the lack of another great American opera of the stature of ``Porgy and Bess.''
First produced by the Minnesota Opera with a young, eager and mostly unknown cast led by Grant Gershon, ``The Grapes of Wrath'' is next due, in January 2009, at Opera Pacific in California's Orange County.
Best known so far for his adroit Broadway-style ``songbooks'' that challenge the best of Stephen Sondheim, and for a quasi-operatic treatment of the classic ``Orpheus and Euridice'' legend that the Long Beach Opera Company produced last season in a rowboat in a municipal swimming pool, Gordon admits to taking a huge leap into the unknown with this treatment of Steinbeck's epic novel.
``I finally had to decide that if I was going to be a composer, this is what I had to do,'' the 52-year-old, Long Island-born composer averred in a recent telephone chat.
Librettist Michael Korie arrived at a similar conclusion. Author of lighter-weight texts, including one (``Hopper's Wife'' in which the wife of the painter metamorphoses into gossip columnist Hedda), Korie took on the Dust Bowl novel at full worth, bypassing the upbeat philosophy that ends the famous John Ford film version in favor of the stark tragedy of the Steinbeck original.
``The music just came flying out of me,'' Gordon remembers. Maybe so, but nothing in his pliant score suggests any sense of airy lightheartedness.
``The last time there was rain,'' the chorus sings wistfully at the start, eyeing their parched farmland and sadly remembering better times. At the end they sing with equal sadness of ``the day the rain began,'' destroying the cotton crop and sending the wandering Joad family again on the road.
``Simple Child,'' a song for Ma Joad on the death of her child Noah, has a haunting beauty that could guarantee it a separate concert life.
Opera, like Hollywood, loves American literature, though literature doesn't always return the compliment. Creditable musical treatments in recent years, imposed upon the literature of Tennessee Williams, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald and their fellows have come -- and, for the most part, gone.
Something about this ``Grapes of Wrath,'' however, suggests a staying power. Partly it is the humility, the willingness of composer and librettist to let Steinbeck's overpowering textual lyricism rest undisturbed. Partly it is the sound of Gordon's music: chorus and orchestra joined in this ``big fat musical,'' as he calls it, in a vernacular style that works even in an operatic and a serious concert setting.
Maybe, this time, that creaky old institution known as opera really has turned a corner. It wouldn't be a moment too soon."
musicluvR | 09/10/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The recording is great! I was expecting the music to be super modern sounding but it's got a great colloquial feel to it with banjo and harmonica. There are even some jazzy parts. The singers are fantastic and the orchestra is fabulous!"
A good first recording
William Buchanan | Pittsburgh, PA, USA | 12/27/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I sang in the third production of this work at Pittsburgh Opera where we premiered a revision prepared by Ricky Ian Gordan (composer) and Michael Korie (librettist). This revision was necessary, in part due to dramatic considerations as perceived by the composer and the librettist, but also because of its length (see addendum). Yet the original version as recorded here is a wonderful documentation of a significant American premiere by one of America's premiere vocal composers. The original cast members, many of whom sang in the Pittsburgh production, give splendid performances on this recording.
The work is an interesting pastiche of styles - if you don't like the opening, wait - it will change. Highlights include: the monumental, Copland-esque opening chorus ("The Last Time There Was Rain"); the Ragged Man's solo ("I Can't Tell You," sung with incredible insight and passion by Kelly Markgraf - he was with us in Pittsburgh and broke my heart every time he sang this, whether in rehearsal or performance - this has the ring, albeit in a modern vein, of a Verdian bass-baritone aria - think King Phillip's "Ella giammai m'amo" in Don Carlos); "Endicott Farm" (listed in the CD booklet as "My Plum Tree" and "No Work Here," it is the moral lesson of the opera according to the composer - it plums the work's dramatic and moral heart equally as well as anything by Weill or Sondheim); the haunting and beautiful "Dios Te Salve" (that owes more than a little something to Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols"), the heartfelt "Little Dead Moses" (surging with all the vigor and heart of a film score by Korngold yet written in an American popular idiom - it's sung with fervor by Robert Orth who in addition to Uncle John in Grapes of Wrath also created the role of Harvey Milk in another opera with a libretto by Korie); and the showstopper, "The Creek" (CD 2, tracks 12 and 13, it explores Copland's ouvre before morphing into Mahler and Berg) in which the slow son Noah (sung with incredible passion by Andrew Wilkowske who reprised this role in Pittsburgh) drowns himself to save his family the burden of supporting him - the Act ends with Noah floating dead in the river (suspended above the stage behind a blue scrim) while his mother - sung beautifully by Deanne Meek on this recording - enters carrying him as a baby and singing him the tenderest of lullabies (Puccini, perhaps), the most beautifully lyric, poignant and haunting moment in the opera (destined to be a popular excerpt for recitals and concerts, it was sung equally well in Pittsburgh by Elizabeth Bishop who was also in the original cast of "Harvey Milk" with Robert Orth).
Because this is CD has been put together from the original five performances in Minnesota, there are the occasional stage and audience noises as well as moments that would have benefited from a retouch in a studio (such as the chorus "It's a step up the ladder" - CD 3, track 6), yet all in all, it's a wonderful recording of the original version of this important and moving opera by one of America's gifted and lyrical composers. The booklet is a bit lean (no singers' bios, for instance). For these reasons alone I give it four stars; however, to be fair, the best way to rate this CD is as BBC Magazine would: Performance - five stars; Presentation - four stars. A recording of the revision (and a DVD too) needs to be financed. This is a work that will enter the regular opera repertoire and deserves to be mounted again and again - and it deserves YOUR attention.
ADDENDUM: The opera as recorded amounts to 3 hours 7 seven minutes of music over three acts. Adding twenty-minute intermissions after Acts I and II amounts to 3 hours and 47 minutes at minimum in performance. Many opera houses panic at the thought of exceeding 3 hours because (a) audiences are not as prone to sit as long as they used to and (b) running over 3 hours often incurs very costly overtime for stagehands and orchestra members, and opera companies are pinching pennies as much as possible, especially in the current economic situation. Pruning the score was wise for encouraging future productions (as it was, we needed to make some painful cuts in the the shorter revision in Pittsburgh to keep the show within budget). Verdi had more latitude when it came to running time (although even he capped his longest opera, Don Carlos, at about four hours). And, unlike Verdi, modern composers have little wiggle room once a show opens. Granted they are tested in workshops, but it's not until you mount the whole thing on the big stage that you see where changes might be made. Ricky was only able to get the revision done by offering to partially pay for the publication of a revised score and orchestra parts. Verdi, however, could revise the show over and over again (there are at least five versions of Don Carlos over a 20 year period - and cuts were made between the completion of the opera and its premiere as well as directly after). The current business of music makes it hard for composers to make adjustments, so Ricky is to be commended for insisting that he be allowed to tinker with the score after the parts were published. Whether the original version, or the revision, this is a truly momentous and moving piece."
Stephen Eddin's All Music Guide Review
C. Feliciano | Pittsburgh, PA | 11/01/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It's a pleasure to report that Ricky Ian Gordon's The Grapes of Wrath deserves a place in the extremely tiny pantheon of successful American operas based on classic American novels. (Porgy and Bess, the granddaddy of American opera, and in a class by itself, is based on a minor novel, Dubose Heyward's Porgy, which would undoubtedly be forgotten today if it were not for the opera.) Gordon is obviously a theatre composer -- he knows how to shape an ensemble, a scene, an act, to create a compelling large narrative musical arc. The score is endlessly inventive, and there is more than enough attention-grabbing material to justify its length of more than three hours. The ensemble, "The Last Time There Was Rain," gives the opera a particularly powerful opening; it provides a harrowing context for the devastation of the drought that sets the story in motion. Gordon is not afraid of melody, and he draws generously on popular idioms of the time, including jazz, Gospel and Broadway. His sound is firmly rooted in Gershwin and Copland, but it's also his own, with a contemporary sensibility holding enough musical surprises that it's identifiably a modern work. Gordon writes persuasively for the voice. His vocal lines are graceful and purposeful, and are supported by meaningful musical structures; there is none of the random lyrical meandering that afflicts so many contemporary operas. One reservation about the work's overall impact is the upbeat sound of so much of the score. The story is almost relentlessly grim, and while a Wozzeckian starkness would certainly be out of place here, the music sometimes tends to skirt the shock of the tragedies the heap up over the course of the story; some climactic moments seem merely cinematic rather than profoundly explored and expressed. Michael Korie brilliantly focuses the sprawling novel into a dramatically effective libretto that vividly individualizes the opera's many characters. Gordon is also especially gifted at musical characterization; one of the opera's greatest strengths is the diversity with which he limns the various members of the Joad family. The opera receives a splendid production from the Minnesota Opera, and this recording is taken from its first performances in February 2007. Grant Gershon leads the Minnesota Opera Chorus and Orchestra in stirring, committed performances. The large cast fills out the roles both vocally and dramatically. Especially memorable and powerful are Deanne Meek as Ma Joad, Brian Leerhuber as Tom Joad, Kelly Kaduce as Rosasharn, Roger Honeywell as Jim Casy, Robert Orth as Uncle John, Jesse Blumberg as Connie, and Andrew Wilkowske as Noah. The sound is clear and well balanced; almost every word, except for those in the most complex ensembles, is understandable, a testimony to the engineers' work as well as to Gordon's skill at text setting. The opera should be of strong interest to anyone concerned with developments in American lyric theatre. Stephen Eddins, All Music Guide
Critics Weight In on "The Grapes Of Wrath"
E. Cameron | Pittsburgh, PA | 11/08/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Gordon, who first made his name in the theatre and as a composer of Broadway-style songs, fills his score with beautifully turned genre pieces, often harking back to American popular music of the twenties and thirties: Gershwinesque song-and-dance numbers, a few sweetly soaring love songs in the manner of Jerome Kern, banjo-twanging ballads, saxed-up jazz choruses, even a barbershop quartet. You couldn't ask for a more comfortably appointed evening of vintage musical Americana . Yet, with a slyness worthy of Weill, Gordon wields his hummable tunes to critical effect. Alex Ross, The New Yorker The music Gordon has written brings these events and characters to life. At once simple and complex, the score captures the scope and breadth of the story persuasively. Gordon's musical language is a fascinating mix of different styles that incorporate the best of American 20th century music. The score for "The Grapes of Wrath" is a wonderful merger of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, all of which is mixed together and blended into a sophisticated concoction that is uniquely and unmistakably Gordon's. One of the most important and vital works for the stage to come from a contemporary American composer in many years. A sprawling grand opera that captures the depth, vastness and poetic beauty of the novel Edward Reichel, Deseret Morning News As far as I was concerned -- and this is a minority opinion -- the nearly four-hour opera was too short. Had Gordon and Korie been allowed to follow their original bliss and create a two-night or more American "Ring" cycle, I would have gladly returned for more. The greatest glory of the opera is Gordon's ability to musically flesh out the entire 11-member Joad clan... Each has a distinct musical style. Each is sympathetic. Gordon and Korie, through sheer conviction, and Minnesota Opera, through a brilliant production and cast, have found the timeless and timely essence of Steinbeck's epic Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times The great American opera? Ricky Ian Gordon's "Grapes of Wrath" might be it. 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. Wes Blomster, Musical America/Opera Today A grand, sprawling, politically astute and musically compelling affair that amply and accessibly answers the rhetorical question: "An opera about Okies?" a production of might and sweeping scale, one that in vision and craft, honors Steinbeck's source material DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA, Pioneer Press The new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie masterfully captures the scope and spirit of Steinbeck's Nobel-winning epic. "The Grapes of Wrath" works as grand opera, with its large cast and sweeping score, and as a pointed reminder that the social problems that vexed Steinbeck never really go away. "I swear, what's this country comin' to?" a chorus of Pump Guys sneers at the desperate "Okies." What, indeed. Gordon's score is, as conductor Grant Gershon described it, "a patchwork - a quilt of American sound." The composer's antecedents - Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, among others - are clear, yet Gordon stitches them together in a way all his own. Folk music, swing, Andrews Sisters-style harmonies, jazz, even some Handelian word painting all pop through the contemporary opera fabric. Recurring motifs, such as "Handbills" and "It's Not My Fault," help tie it all up. And don't be surprised if you walk out humming one of the tunes. By Catherine Reese Newton The Salt Lake Tribune What Minnesota Opera has come up with is a splendid, almost perfect production of an opera that is smart, funny, touching and harrowing, in all the right places Michael Anthony, Star Tribune Waves of beauty and transcendence... 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. 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. Quinton Skinner, Variety 10 Best Lists at the years end... Vintage opera: The pinnacle of the opera season was Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie's "The Grapes of Wrath," co-commissioned by Utah Opera and presented in Salt Lake City in May. Gordon and Korie's "Grapes" masterfully captured the scope and spirit of John Steinbeck's epic novel. Catherine Reese Newton, The Salt Lake Tribune The world premiere adaptation of John Steinbeck's iconic novel was also the most ambitious, galvanizing and audacious piece of performance I saw this year...what emerged was a three-act, four-hour journey that had both the might of an epic and a naked, intimate honesty that slugged you right in the gut. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon's rangy, cagey, nuanced score had one foot in the opera world and the other tapping more populist ground, referencing Gershwin and Broadway musicals. Michael Korie killed off more Joads than did Steinbeck himself in an unabashedly lefty libretto Dominic Papatola, Pinoeer Press Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie took one of the great American novels and set out to write the great American opera. And they just may have succeeded, thanks to a deeply involving and imaginatively staged world-premiere production by the Minnesota Opera. ROB HUBBARD Pioneer Press An unqualified success and important contribution to contemporary opera, Edward Reichel, Deseret Morning News One new opera has left the others in the dust when it comes to a bold dramatic and musical statement -- Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie's The Grapes of Wrath. You sit there thinking, finally, someone has thought about proper structure, about which characters get the best music, about how to build to one satisfying climax after another. Ma Joad's "Simple Child" gave Act II a heartbreaking ending, only to be topped by Rosasharn's aria that concludes Act III -- the one in which she breast-feeds the starving man. Why has this sort of theatrical savvy become so rare in opera? Brian Kellow, Opera News "