ST. LOUIS — “Kill your darlings,” Tchaikovsky is supposed to have said. Sometimes an artist has to cut out favorite parts of a work in order to make it succeed. People love to quote that line, and yet that unsentimental self-accountability is still too often absent when it comes to making new opera. The Opera Theater of St. Louis, this summer, put on two works by prolific American composers who know something about self-editing. One opera had the benefit of time and a lot of cutting. One, alas, did not.
Ricky Ian Gordon and Philip Glass are radically different composers, but both are blessed with the ability to write a lot of music — and when you write so much, some things invariably come out better than others. It’s no accident that my favorite operas by both these composers are operas that have been drastically revised and reworked some years after their initial premieres. In Glass’s case, it’s “Appomattox,” which the Washington National Opera put on in 2015 with an entirely new second half — not just a revision of the 2007 San Francisco version. In Gordon’s case, the work is “The Grapes of Wrath,” already mightily acclaimed after its 2007 premiere, which the Opera Theater of Saint Louis mounted this summer in an adapted version that was one act and an entire hour shorter than the original. It could stand to be cut even a little more; but the first act, especially, is very good.
“The Grapes of Wrath” represents a near-perfect matchup of composer, librettist, and source material. John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about the odyssey of the Joad family from the Oklahoma dust bowl to the shantytowns of Depression-era California, is quintessential Americana, aspires to profundity, and narrowly skirts bathos. The same descriptions could be applied to the work of both Gordon and Michael Korie, his librettist. Gordon, one of several young composers heralded in the 1990s as the future of American musical theater, is mercifully unafraid to show his gift for melody: “Grapes” gives most of the main characters distinctive numbers, and recapitulates them a lot so you remember them. At times, his music gets jingly, as do Korie’s rhymed lyrics; but the score’s sophistication and nuance and movement keep it fresh and flowing, and prevent it getting kitschy.
Korie also does a virtuosic job of transforming a long and discursive book into an opera that manages to contain a lot of the flavor of the original without feeling like merely a recitation of its main plot points, in language that is very much his own. Steinbeck, in the book, intersperses the odyssey of the Joad family with exegeses about the historical context — little prose essays about car salesmen or the diners along Route 66. Gordon and Korie cast some of these as choral numbers, with the chorus often singing the same tune in different situations, a device that helps bind the piece together while preserving a distinctive feature of the book that would be easy to jettison for operatic purposes.
The opera’s Achilles’ heel, which becomes clear in the second act, is that when it attempts to go too big, it goes south. “The Grapes of Wrath” is a big piece about big things, but its strongest emotional points — and there are a number of moving moments — are understated, like the simple, questioning homily that Casey, a former preacher who has lost his faith, delivers over the body of Grandpa Joad early in the trip. (The tenor Geoffrey Agpalo was spot-on as Casey, straightforward and clean of voice.) But when Gordon strives for more overt emotion, as in Tom Joad’s epiphany and farewell to his mother in Act II, it feels forced and artificial and overlong, and Tobias Greenhalgh, who generally did a good job with the role, didn’t seem to know quite how to bring it off, sounding vocally ragged around the edges. More simplicity here would have worked better, and even more cutting. Similarly, the role of the matriarch Ma Joad, played by Katharine Goeldner as the archetypal Dorothea Lange enduring woman, was at once thin and overwrought — whereas the unlikeable Uncle John sprang to life in Robert Orth’s ornery, tough, character-ful performance.
Still, there was a lot to like about this “Grapes of Wrath,” including James Robinson’s resourceful production that created a big canvas with modest but evocative means. There were a few notable voices, including Michael Day, his tenor smooth and slick in the role of the younger brother Al Joad; Andrew Lovato as Connie; and Levi Hernandez blustering and flailing as Pa Joad. And Christopher Allen (recently heard in Washington leading “The Daughter of the Regiment”) conducted with energy, bringing out the colors of the score. The Opera Theater of St. Louis has made something of a specialty of having composers revisit works that had initial big successes but subsequently languished — John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” and Tobias Picker’s “Emmeline” among them. It’s a valuable function, and I hope this shortened “Grapes” has a longer active life.
The Opera Theater of St. Louis mounted a Philip Glass opera this summer, as well: the American premiere of “The Trial,” another collaboration with Glass’s “Appomattox” librettist, Christopher Hampton, based on the Franz Kafka novel. But this opera, which premiered in 2014, could use another stint on the drawing board. There are some very good things about this opera, and for the first half-hour or so, I thought it might be another hit, with a strong young cast (led by Theo Hoffman as the protagonist, Josef K.) and comedic production by Michael McCarthy that brought out the farcical elements of the unfunny situation of someone being arrested and led further and further into the bureaucratic processes surrounding a trial without ever knowing why. Even more significantly, Glass continues to develop as a composer for orchestra; he has one of the most distinctive thumbprints of any composer now working, but he deploys the orchestra more and more effectively, and this score showed him drawing on a considerable range of tonal color. But once this premise is set up, there’s not much place for it to go: The very story is predicated on quickly establishing a sense of absurdity and continuing to keep it at an untenable pitch for the duration of the work, and this simply isn’t very dramatic or compelling to watch, or listen to. There have been at least two recent operas based on “The Trial” — Poul Ruders wrote one in 2005 — but this one, at least, didn’t convince me that the material is actually operatic; though the cast did a wonderful job with what it had, the stasis of music and drama ultimately proved insurmountable. It’s not a long opera, but it felt like a very long evening.
Performances of “The Trial” continue through Friday; “The Grapes of Wrath” runs through Sunday at the Opera Theater of St. Louis. The season’s other two operas are Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and Mozart’s “Titus,” a.k.a. “La Clemenza di Tito.”