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 theater composer -- he knows how to shape an ensemble, a scene, and an act to create a compellingly 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 generously draws 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 that 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 theater.