The Grapes of Wrath | Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

The questions posed by The Grapes of Wrath are particularly timely today.

If I had to choose one book to be the Great American Novel, I’m not sure what I would pick. The choice for the Most American Novel would be easier—I’d immediately go with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s novel was a bestseller when originally published in 1939, and was adapted as a movie starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford the following year. It tells a big, sprawling story of American during the Dust Bowl, centered on the fortunes of the Joad family as they migrate from Oklahoma to California and try to establish a new life there. There’s something for everything in this story, from inspiration to pathos to humor to social commentary, and both the novel and the film have long proven popular with critics and audiences alike.

Saint Louisans have the chance to experience the story in another format, as an opera with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Michael Korie. The version currently being performed by Opera Theatre Saint Louis is a revision of a three-act version that premiered at the Minnesota Opera in 2007; the current version has been cut down to two acts plus a prologue, and perhaps more importantly, from four hours to just under three.

Fans of the novel and/or film will find many of their favorite incidents included in the opera. Gordon’s score is tuneful and pleasing to the ear, and the individual numbers are skillfully written, if less memorable than those of most popular operas or musicals. The score uses lots of recitative to get the story told, sometimes with a bit more detail than required (seriously, this is one story you can assume most Americans know), but also includes some lovely arias, duets, and ensemble pieces. In a work of this length, you would like to feel that every element included is absolutely necessary, but sometimes while watching The Grapes of Wrath I had the feeling that numbers were included because they were effective set-pieces (a scene where Al buys the car that will carry the Joads to California is a case in point) rather than because they were essential to the work as a unified whole.

On the other hand, one of the most effective single moments in the work is a scene set in a truck stop (hint: it involves the purchase of a loaf of bread and two sticks of candy). It would work effectively as a standalone scene (I remember reading it as part of a short story collection in junior high, not realizing it was part of a much longer novel), but also makes a critical point about the Joad’s journey and the way grace can emerge in the most unlikely of contexts. Equally important, this scene gives mezzo Jennifer Panara the chance to show off her voice and strut her stuff.

The Grapes of Wrath has a large cast, with many playing multiple roles, and the score gives just about every main character, and some minor ones as well, at least one moment in the spotlight. All the key roles were well acted and sung, but particular standouts include mezzo Katharine Goeldner as Ma Joad, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh as Tom Joad, tenor Geoffrey Agpalo as the former preacher Casey, and baritone Hugh Russell as Noah Joad.

The sets by Allen Moyer use every inch of the Loretto-Hilton stage, employing a variety of movable furniture to facilitate quick scene changes. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind sometimes isolates characters on one part of the stage while sets are being changed in the background, a technique that allows the story to unfold seamlessly. The basic set presents the interior of the “Holy Ghost Full Gospel Mission,” the location for a prologue in which worn-looking men and women rise, one by one, to tell of their lives since “The last time it rained.” A backdrop on the stage carries the slogan “Jesus said, if any man thirst, let him come to me and drink,” which references not only the lack of rain but also the final scene of the opera. This backdrop is changed to indicate location: a mural signifies the green fields of California, while a placard bearing the words “Jobless men keep going. We can’t take care of our own” indicates the unfriendly welcome offered to Okies in what they thought would be their promised land.

Most of the staging is simple and unfussy, but two scenes call attention to themselves in a way that is incongruous with the rest of the production. One is a scene of conflict between the migrants and local law enforcement, which used some showy stop-action staging. The other used shadows projected on a cloth to depict a death by drowning. To be fair, , the latter scene was warmly received by the audience, and it was one character’s only moment in the spotlight, so I can understand why it was retained in this version of the opera.

The questions posed by The Grapes of Wrath are particularly timely today. Some of these include: What do we owe people who have fallen on hard times? Does it matter how they got there? Should migrants be welcomed or spurned? What checks, if any, should be placed on the rich and the powerful? Steinbeck has a clear point of view on these issues, and so does this opera, but there are many fruitful discussions to be had regarding how those points of view are expressed, and what alternative answers could be given to those questions. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Grapes of Wrath is presented in repertory by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis through June 25. Performances are at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road, at Big Bend) in Webster Groves. Tickets are available at a wide range of prices, with special deals available for many groups including students, educators, and military personnel. Further information about the season, ticket availability, and special events is available from the company’s web site or by calling 314-961-0644. 

Photo: Ken Howard


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