BEST OPERA - 2007
The Grapes of Wrath
When at last the Minnesota Opera's Dale Johnson and composer Ricky Ian Gordon secured rights from the Steinbeck estate to compose an opera from The Grapes of Wrath, Gordon must have resolved then and there not to squander the opportunity on the kind of gauzy Americana that similar coups have inspired. He took to heart the meaning of opera: four hours, two intermissions, forty-plus singers, a full orchestra. He and librettist Michael Korie insisted on staying true to both the novel's amplitude and its discomfiting outrage. The co-commission (with Utah Opera) never shies from portraying the harrowing particulars endured by the dislocated Joads as they make their way west. The ditches lining Route 66 are ready graves for their meager heirlooms and beloved dead—the things they believe to be the last shreds of who they are. But the opera continually weaves these sorrows into a broader fabric of social destiny. It's both grand and intimate—and often funny. (There is even a paean to a New Deal latrine.) Through it all, Ma Joad, sung beautifully and with apt darkness by Deanne Meek, strives to keep the "fambily" together. It hardly works out that way, but Gordon and Korie suffuse her desperation with grit and eloquence. Gordon's music and Korie's prosody, even at their most transporting, explore thresholds rather than resolutions. They're illusionless without being hopeless. To a singer, the production's cast got this. Have-nots everywhere struggle terribly, they tell us, but in shameless and myth-drunk America, that need distills from universal miseries a distinct odor of shame.