Friday, March 01, 2013

Cliffs Notes Never Sounded So Good: Northwestern Students Deliver an Outstanding Operatic Reading of 'The Grapes of Wrath' -- Chicago Opera / Theater Review

Opera / Theater Review

The Grapes of Wrath
an opera composed by Ricky Ian Gordon
libretto by Michael Korie
Northwestern University Opera Theater
Cahn Auditorium
Thru March 2 (tickets)

I wish I was much more literate than I actually am.

Since college, my consumption of classic literature has been abysmal, and though I believe I would find its basic themes agreeable, I have never read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Nor have I even seen John Ford's acclaimed 1940 movie adaptation, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.

Except for a general awareness of the importance of the novel and its Depression/Dust Bowl milieu, my strongest familiarity with Grapes has likely come courtesy of Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," recent live versions of which have featured a "holy sh*t" guitar solo by Tom Morello.

So while I won't pretend that having now seen a terrific rendition of the 2007 Grapes of Wrath opera by Ricky Ian Gordon provides me with a comprehensive accounting of Steinbeck's masterpiece--any more than my love of the Les Misérables musical has fully acquainted me with Victor Hugo's tome--to have gotten a 60-person cast, 55-piece orchestra and the narrative essence, all for just $18, well let's just say it was rather fruitful.

And genuinely delightful.

Having seen and appreciated--if not innately loved--more than 40 operas from the nosebleed seats at Chicago's great Lyric Opera, I am not going to say that this American opera, sung in English, is on par with the masterworks of Mozart, Puccini and Verdi.

Nor, while being extraordinarily impressed with the mostly student cast--professional baritone Robert Orth is a guest artist as Uncle John--would I say that the singing is quite the same as one would hear at the Civic Opera House.

But perhaps due to being just a few rows from the stage at Northwestern's venerable Cahn Auditorium, the power and diversity of Ricky Ian Gordon's score, the über-relevance of Steinbeck's 1939 story parsed through lyrics by Michael Korie (who did likewise for Broadway's Grey Gardens), genuinely superlative performances and the musical theateresque accessibility of the whole affair, I am not being hyperbolic to say that The Grapes of Wrath delivered one of my most engrossing and enriching opera experiences to date.

Staged by Michael M. Ehrman, Northwestern's director of opera, the 3-1/2 hour performance, with only two 10-minute intermissions, went by faster than some 100-minute works I've sat through. 

While I was never smart enough to actually go to Northwestern University, I'm glad to have such an estimable resource just minutes from my home. I've enjoyed several theatrical performances on campus, value the Block Museum & Cinema and in January attended an excellent lecture on Martin Luther King, Jr. by the remarkable Harry Belafonte

It says much about the depth and breadth of Wildcat talent that not only could they stage such a vast production--the scenery was static but impressive, augmented by video projections--for just 4 shows, but that most of the key roles employed different students for the Feb. 22/28 and Feb. 24/March 2 performances.

Attending last night, with a ticket bought the same day--tickets for Saturday night's closing performance seem a bit more sparse, but available as of this writing; see link at top--I enjoyed a cast that quickly had me forgetting about their predominantly youthful ages.

I often abstain from reviewing collegiate productions, so as not to brazenly critique students still learning their craft. But none here fear the gripes of my wrath, as I have nothing but praise to espouse.

George Evan Bravos was terrific as Tom Joad and Emily Spencer was even more magnificent in a convincingly age-spanning turn as Ma Joad. Her aria rendition of "Us"--about what the Joad family would and wouldn't leave behind in leaving Oklahoma for the promise of California--was truly moving.

Robert Harris also showcased sublime vocal prowess as lapsed preacher Jim Casy, while Julie Tabash imbued the pregnant Rosasharn with strong singing and emotional gravitas. And as one would expect from a guest performer who has graced the world's premier opera stages, Robert Orth was also great as Uncle John.

Commissioned and initially staged by the Minnesota Opera in 2007, The Grapes of Wrath has the breadth and feel of an opera, but a bit akin to the ultimate American opera, Porgy & Bess, utilizes a spectrum of sounds that venture beyond classical music, including blues, jazz, country and even a bit of doo-wop. Choral numbers like the opening "The Last Time There Was Rain" and several others were spine-tingling sensational.

According to a similarly laudatory review by the Chicago Tribune's John von Rhein, the Lyric Opera had passed on presenting The Grapes of Wrath, despite Ricky Ian Gordon having been a former composer-in-residence there.

I won't pretend to know what went into such a decision by the Lyric--which, interestingly, will be staging the similarly-set Oklahoma in May--nor can I say with any acuity if The Grapes of Wrath truly belongs among the pantheon of legendary operas.

All I know is that compared to many I've seen, it--ironically--felt a lot less dusty.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed "The Grapes of Wrath". The cast was excellent,the acting was first rate,and the singing was "top notch". I loved the costumes,the setting,the orchestra. A "top rate" performance. Some great young talent. The final scene of Rosasharn with Julie Tabsah's voice and acting was very emotional. There was "not a dry eye" in the house. A perfect ending for an outstanding opera. BRAVO TO ALL!!!