Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Good (but not necessarily great) Earth

May 19, 2008

Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie
Photo : Greg Downer

The Los Angeles Master Chorale wrapped up their season on Sunday night at the WDCH with a highly anticipated program of operatic works. While the second half of the evening contained many of the old favorites from Verdi and others, the real draw was the premiere of a 75 minute or so selection of excerpts from Ricky Ian Gordon’s most recent opera The Grapes of Wrath featuring a libretto by Michael Korie. The work premiered last year at Minnesota Opera to strong reviews and is scheduled to make its fully-staged West Coast premiere with Opera Pacific next winter.

I had mixed feelings going into this in that my last brush with Gordon’s work in Long Beach earlier this year (with his Orpheus and Eurydice) wasn’t particularly impressive. I’m glad to say Wrath is more substantial and affecting despite the fact that this particular evening was saddled with significant problems. The first was Gordon himself who acted as narrator between movements reviewing some of the plot between each section. Gordon may be a talented composer, but there is an art to reading text in front of an audience, which is not his forte. The evening was also hampered by amplification problems. The sound was so grating for the first 20 minutes it bordered on the intolerable creating a ringing indistinguishable mass of noise. It still isn't clear to me why the amplification was necessary at all.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Steinbeck’s novel and I’ve forgotten how depressing it is. It’s ripe for an operatic adaptation, and this isn’t a bad one, if a bit obvious at times. The music is tuneful and would probably be as comfortable in a blockbuster Broadway musical or mid-size Hollywood star vehicle. To paraphrase Betty Freeman, this is precisely music that tells you how you’re supposed to feel at all times, no guessing required. But this is opera, which is prone to sentimentality and there is a rich tradition of this form of composition from about the early 19th to about the early 20th century, so Gordon's approach is not without very venerable precedents. But in 2008, it doesn’t seem very daring even if it is well done.

Still, there are some wonderful bits including a scene where Noah Joad commits suicide that was quite moving. There are other pluses as well. The primary one was a sterling rendition of Ma Joad performed here by Elizabeth Bishop. A former Met National Council Auditions winner, she’s made her way around many American stages over the last several years, and tonight she shone like a bright light amidst a world full of shadows. She was in command and brought to her role a sense of suffering just below the beautiful tone of her voice. The rest of the cast was strong, but this is an LAMC show and as is typically the case, they were real superstars. Or as Grant Gershon himself noted from the stage later on – there is an amazing number of very talented vocalists amongst this crowd. Whether sharecroppers, Hebrew slaves, Russian peasants, or gypsies, the chorale delivered a superb performance.

It's worth noting that the evening served an additional purpose besides showing off the LAMC's talent. It was also a harbinger of things to come from director Grant Gershon himself now that he has taken over as chorus master at L.A. Opera. If he can do this here, then there is no reason that he can't do it across the street. Additionally, he will serve as Associate Conductor with LAO and will lead performances of La Traviata next summer. Although he is no stranger to the operatic stage, Gershon was on display proving that, if there were any doubters, he’s got what it takes to bring some increased excitement to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in seasons to come.

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From: Alan Rich


Who Would Have Thought? Word was out, after performances in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, that Ricky Ian Gordon’s operatic setting of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was some kind of near-masterpiece; there was Mark Swed’s near-ecstatic review to corroborate. I knew Ricky from lovable song collections and from the Orpheus and Euridice set in a Long Beach swimming pool a few months ago, lovable within reason. Steinbeck’s great humanitarian tragedy was another matter. For the Master Chorale Ricky prepared a “suite” from his opera, a 50-minute encapsulation with big choruses, some solos and enough stage action to tie everything together and preserve a likeness of both novel and opera. It was a terrific event, not merely a teaser for the Opera Pacific production of the actual opera, which happens next January, but a concert work with an integrity of its own. Incidentally Grant Gershon, the Master Chorale’s intrepid conductor, had also led the premiere performance at the Minnesota Opera.

Michael Korie’s libretto offers a fuller account of Steinbeck’s novel than the John Ford film, ending in bleak bitterness around fires, floods, and Rosasharn’s dead baby. “Our lives are us,” sings Ma Joad (Elizabeth Bishop)on a hopeful note as the family sets out for California; “All its hardship is us,” sings Tom (Brian Leerhuber) at the end. In between come eloquent choral episodes, a haunting song for Ma Joad (Elizabeth Bishop)over the drowning death of a child, a lovely interlude for Hispanic bean-pickers. Ricky sat on stage during the whole performance, a hunched-up figure in an oversized cap, exuding pride of ownership; he was entitled.
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