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
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.
Labels: LA Master Chorale 07/08, Ricky Ian Gordon