Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review: At Opera Theatre, "The Grapes of Wrath" is a searing indictment of American folly

The Joad family on the road
Photo: Ken Howard
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"If you're not outraged," reads a popular bumper sticker, "you're not paying attention." I can't think of a better way to describe my reaction to composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie's powerful operatic treatment of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, on view at Opera Theatre through Sunday, June 25th.

Originally created for Minnesota Opera back in 2007 and revised substantially for the current production (hence its designation as a "world premiere"), the opera (like the novel that inspired it) is a searing indictment of the cruel and exploitative treatment of the so-called "Okies"-subsistence farmers driven into poverty by the Depression and the Dust Bowl and driven from their homes by rapacious banks. It's an indictment which, as Mr. Gordon points out in a program note, "maintains its resonance today: governments and people at odds, human-induced environmental disasters, distrust between corporations and workers, passing the buck and denying responsibility."

That doesn't mean that The Grapes of Wrath is a heavy-handed Brechtian diatribe, though. Its strong moral is conveyed by an intelligent and thoughtful libretto with well-rounded, credible characters. It's the harrowing and tragic tale of the Joad family that drives the message home.

Tobias Greenhalgh and
Katherine Goeldner
Photo: Ken Howard
And then there's Mr. Gordon's immensely appealing score. It pays homage to American folk music, vintage pop tunes, and notable American composers like Samuel Barber while still sounding fresh and original. It's also filled with ingenious touches, for example when characters trying to dodge responsibility for their cruel and oppressive actions sing "it's not my fault" to the "fate" motif from Beethoven's Fifth. "I'm a victim of circumstance," as Curly Howard used to say.

Under James Robinson's sure direction, a large cast of remarkable singing actors brings Steinbeck's rich tapestry of hope and tragedy to brilliant life. Mezzo Katherine Goeldner delivers a standout performance as the long-suffering Ma Joad, trying to hold her family together as it crumbles under the weight of bad luck and oppression. Her voice is powerful and her acting impeccable. Baritone Tobias Greenhalgh is impressive as Tom Joad, trying to escape his ex-con past, and baritone Hugh Russell is a painfully tragic Noah Joad, the simple-minded brother who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his family.

There are great performances as well by baritone Robert Orth as the alcoholic Uncle John, baritone Levi Hernandez as Pa Joad, and soprano Deanna Breiwick as Tom's pregnant sister Rosasharn. Tenor Geoffrey Agpalo also shines as the lapsed preacher Jim Casy. In fact, there's not a less than stellar performance anywhere in this large cast; see the OTSL web site for a complete list.

.. The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel is often quoted as saying that “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” The Grapes of Wrath reminds us of the high human cost of stupidly repeated past mistakes. Go see it now; tickets are available at the Opera Theatre web site.

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